Sonoma County zoning board backs freeze on Freestone commercial development

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Sonoma County’s zoning board agreed Thursday to seek a temporary freeze on new commercial development in the rural town of Freestone so that inconsistencies in local land-use designations for the area can be resolved before any new proposals are considered.

The most immediate effect of the recommendation, which requires action by the Board of Supervisors, could be to slow or curtail the proposed conversion of a 205-acre farm off Bodega Highway into what was once intended to be a wine-related event center, though county planners have curbed the initial proposal.

At issue is a “limited commercial” land-use designation that was created for the 1989 update to the county’s general plan and applied to 26 parcels in Freestone, a bucolic town with a couple of dozen homes at the meeting of Bodega and Bohemian highways. The 26 properties include a one-time residence later converted to the Freestone Artisan Cheese shop and a portion of the farm Santa Rosa entrepreneur John Webley now hopes to develop, though he has not disclosed his latest plans.

But the general plan maps for the area and policy guidelines adopted decades ago appear to be in conflict, said Eric Koenigshofer, an Occidental attorney who represented the area more than three decades ago on the Board of Supervisors. He has voiced opposition both to the recent approval for alcohol sales at a Freestone cheese shop and Webley’s initial plans for conversion of his farm property.

The map is based on guidelines that would allow new commercial businesses in Freestone only where they already exist — or existed — at the time of the 1989 general plan update, according to Koenigshofer. By his count, that’s only five locations.

The former supervisor opposed the use permit approved last month by the Board of Zoning Adjustments allowing retail beer and wine sales at the cheese shop and also fought Webley’s initial plan for a beer and wine-tasting venue on his Mableton Farms property.

Webley is a former telecom innovator who owns the stately McDonald Mansion in Santa Rosa. His disputed proposal envisioned turning his landmark barn into a wine-tasting venue, tap room and art gallery, with 230 parking places and up to three events a year drawing as many as 300 people each.

Zoning board members agreed to reconsider the overarching land-use question after Koenigshofer and another former west county supervisor, Ernie Carpenter, testified about it at the April meeting. On Thursday, Willie Lamberson, Supervisor James Gore’s appointee, cast the lone no vote as the zoning board endorsed a moratorium and advanced the issue to supervisors.

About 17 residents appeared at Thursday’s meeting, largely to support the proposed commercial freeze.

Freestone attorney Anne Haden was among those opposing the campaign for a moratorium, which would require the Board of Supervisors to find “a current and immediate threat” that justified such emergency action.

“There seems to be no pent-up demand for conditional use permits that would require a moratorium,” she said.

But another resident, Scott Seidman, warned that “apparent inattention” in the mapping could have significant impacts on the town.

“The stakes are high,” Seidman said. “Each small change toward commercialism of this historic and matchless jewel has a cumulative impact.”

Supervisors would need a four-fifths vote to approve a moratorium, according to county planning officials.

You can reach Staff Writer Mary Callahan at 707-521-5249 or

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