Belden Barns Tasting Room Gets Approved
By Dan Viele
Pandora’s box has opened in Sonoma County. One sees at a Supervisors hearing like this how development creeps into inappropriate places, how Sonoma County could become as environmentally and socially compromised as Napa County. As well, public safety seems lost in the scrum.
All five Supervisors and 80 neighbors attended the Final Environmental Impact Report on expanding this local vineyard between Santa Rosa and Glen Ellen at 5561 Sonoma Mountain Road.
The owner-developer gave an impassioned plea to finally pass the permits for his idyllic Family Farm. Pictures of children picking pumpkins in the freshly plowed furrows filled the screen. “We had a large gathering a couple of weeks ago and no one even noticed”.
Conspicuously absent were images of city visitors drinking at a wine bar before driving on the winner of Sonoma County’s “rotten roads” competition on pressdemocrat.com November, 2015. His plans will add 15,000 drivers each year to the infamously treacherous road. Also absent were images of 200 people attending weddings, the trucks delivering off site produce to the farm, and the general public driving up and down the mountain to the retail store.
The EIR report was, like other reports of its kind, a bit technical, a bit general, written by “experts” who don’t live on the mountain. The EIR concluded the major points of neighborhood contention have all been mitigated to no significant impact. Friends of Sonoma Mountain Road (FOSMR), a coalition of 140 neighbors opposing the project has a thorough Technical and Legal Rebuttal challenging this report at www.protectsonomamountain.org/projects. All of the projects stated intents can be met by moving the Tasting Room, Commercial Food Processing, and Events off site. A win-win for the developer and the neighborhood.
1. A Winery, processing 35% off site grapes with Public Wine Tasting Room
2. Cheese Manufacturing, processing 65-70% off-site Ingredients
3. Public Retail Sales and Event Center hosting weddings up to 200 people
The Bennett Valley Area Plan, which takes legal precedence over the Sonoma General Plan, doesn’t allow commercial enterprises to preserve the rural agricultural heritage of this area. There have never been Tasting Rooms, Retail Sales, or regular Events on the mountain. The “misunderstood” developer claims these extra uses are necessary to be financially viable. He is going to demolish the existing buildings on the property and start from scratch. The wine industry professional across the street asked why his financial condition is any of the public’s concern? The funds necessary to insure safety and maintainability on the access road will not be his.
23 neighbors commented. Five approved of the project. 18 represented the FOSMR opposition. The coalition agrees a Sustainable Organic Family Farm is a wonderful vision. Again and again we heard how wonderful the developer and his farm are. Neighbor by neighbor, we expressed our horror that anyone would consider dispensing alcohol to drivers using this road.
Our District 1 Supervisor Susan Gorin spent years driving the mountain and agrees with the opposition. A DPW representative reported “repairing” the 7.2 mile stretch of road alone will cost well over $3 million, with minor safety enhancements. Only a complete rebuild would significantly improve safety and maintainability at a cost eclipsing the 5 year county budget for all Sonoma road repair.
Why do alcohol dispensing, a retail store, an event center, and agricultural product processing substantially sourced off-site need to be added to this existing local farm?
This issue is not about family, community, or agriculture. It’s about money. The developer will make his profit at the expense of county taxpayers. If prohibited uses are permitted, we will bear the crushing financial burden of making the access road safe for the increased agricultural, event, and public traffic. It also opens the floodgate of development. There are 14 more vineyards on Sonoma Mountain Road.
The developer repeatedly stated he wants to create “community” here. I reminded him we are the community on this mountain, I am his neighbor. Our existing community fears a deathtrap is going to be signed, sealed and delivered against our wishes and well-being.
Revisiting worn out ideas like suggesting alternate routes to visitors, or having on site personnel make sure inebriated people don't drive, a county official admitted in a low voice there really is no way to practically regulate drunk drivers on site. We demanded the Tasting Room and commercial uses move off-site to a safer and appropriate location.
Time to vote. David Rabbit (Dist. 2) couldn’t see what the problem was. Shirley Zane (Dist. 3) noted that fixing the road would only make people drive faster, creating more danger. She commended the developer for putting up with this frustrating and lengthy process. Efren Carrillo (Dist. 5) discussed how adding signs might prevent deadly accidents. The neighbors could also be notified when large events were to occur, so we could choose not to drive on our road. John Gore (Dist. 4) finished with a bit of disdain for being mentioned in the proceedings.
Our supervisor, in tears, said she couldn’t approve this wonderful project sited in the wrong place. “It's an accident waiting to happen”. The local Supervisor is supposed to have preferential influence, knowing in greater detail the neighborhood issues.
The vote: 4 to 1, project approved. Susan will demand the county provide funds to fix this road if it insists this Tasting Room and Event Center be permitted. Carrillo replied “… Good luck with that.”
There you have it. Commercial food processing, alcohol, thousands of unfamiliar urban drivers, dangerous rural road, steel, and flesh. A very difficult public interest issue to balance.
Wine Culture has lost it’s common sense. When did “Agriculture” become Bars, Retail Stores importing ingredients, and Event Centers? All this posing as a “Family Farm” bringing our divided community together?
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