Sonoma County supervisors endorse Knights Valley winery over neighbors’ objections
The Sonoma County Board of Supervisors signaled Tuesday that it would approve a new winery in Knights Valley, advancing a long-planned 10,000-case facility despite concerns from residents worried about how the project would impact the rural area, particularly its limited groundwater supplies.
After a nearly three-hour hearing, supervisors unanimously agreed to move the Knights Bridge Winery proposal forward, indicating the board intends to deny a request from residents who wanted the county to require another layer of environmental review.
The board directed county staff to bring the winery’s use permit back for a formal vote Sept. 19, incorporating several conditions proposed by Supervisor James Gore, who represents Knights Valley.
“There’s one thing everybody has in common, which is this beautiful place,” Gore said at the hearing’s outset. “It’s absolutely gorgeous and pristine, and it’s a place that deserves protection and deserves the highest level of review for projects, too.”
The most significant of Gore’s conditions would solidify a pledge made by the winery’s proponents that the project would offset any additional groundwater use, a key concern of residents opposed to the winery, slated for a roughly 86-acre site — half of which is planted in vineyards — on Spencer Lane about a mile west of Highway 128. The project’s net demand on its well was previously estimated at about 162,900 gallons per year.
Donna Oldford, a consultant for the Knights Bridge Winery team, said after the hearing that the condition could be met through techniques such as drought-friendly farming or removal of vines.
A 10-bedroom, 10-bathroom mansion and another residence are also located on the site. The winery has an existing tasting room in Calistoga.
In the works for more than four years already, the new plan would add a 5,500-square foot winery building and about 17,730 square feet of wine caves, among other additions. The winery would produce no more than 10,400 cases per year and on-site tasting would occur by appointment only, with no more than 13 people allowed to visit the winery each day. The county would not permit any special events on the site, staff said.
“We’re anxious to get started,” said Jim Bailey, the site owner and project applicant, after Tuesday’s hearing. “But we want to make sure we address everything in terms of the conditions. We’re happy, but we’ve got lots of work to do.”
The county’s Board of Zoning Adjustments approved a permit for the winery in September 2015 on a 4-0 vote. Two groups of local residents, the Maacama Watershed Alliance and the Friends of Spencer Lane, appealed the permit approval shortly thereafter, insisting the project warranted a full-blown environmental impact report largely due to its potential affect on groundwater supply and the possible strain from groundwater pumping on nearby Bidwell Creek. Residents have also raised concerns about traffic impacts, among other issues.
“Knights Valley is the most special place in the world, and I’m worried about water, traffic, noise — and they’re of great concern for those of us who live there full time,” said Lauren Thollander, a longtime Knights Valley resident, during the hearing Tuesday. “We do not want our valley to become Sonoma Valley, an Alexander Valley (or) a Mark West ... which just turned into traffic jams every weekend.”
The watershed alliance previously derailed two other winery proposals in Knights Valley, including a smaller 5,000-case project put forward about a decade ago by billionaire vintner Jess Jackson.
Craig Enyart, a spokesperson for the watershed alliance, previously said residents were prepared for possible legal action if supervisors did not require an environmental impact report for the Knights Bridge Winery.
After the hearing, he called the idea of zero-net increase in water usage a “good salvo” and a “compelling piece of information for the board,” though he indicated that court challenge remains a possibility.
“We haven’t had a chance to talk, obviously,” Enyart said. “We’re going to huddle up between now and Sept. 19.”
You can reach Staff Writer J.D. Morris at 707-521-5337.
Editor's note: This story has been updated to accurately reflect the amount of groundwater use that was estimated for the Knights Bridge Winery.