It took a four-and-a-half-hour meeting, over 20 public speakers and sometimes testy exchanges between county officials, but on Tuesday the Board of Supervisors voted 4-1 to approve the final EIR for Belden Barns, the proposed 55-acre winery and creamery at 5561 Sonoma Mountain Road.
“It’s been a long, frustrating and stressful period for our family to work through,” said Nate Belden following the vote. “That said, we’re fortunate to live in Sonoma County and California, and we respect the applicable laws and the permitting process we’ve gone through.”
But regardless of the many appealing features of the Beldens’ planned farmstead – with a 10,000-case winery, 10,000-pound creamery, food and wine tasting room and eight events a year – the debate that raged was all about the road: “It’s the right project in the wrong place” became the mantra of the day.
Nearly everyone agreed that the project itself has merit. “We dream of families like the Beldens who will become the next generation of farmers,” said Karissa Kruse of the Sonoma County Winegrowers Association.
But there was considerable pushback over the location, midway across Sonoma Mountain Road on its ragged course from Bennett Valley to Glen Ellen.
The road was voted the worst in the county in a 2015 Press Democrat poll, besting more-traveled but still rural stretches such as Irwin Lane, Riebli Road, Faught Road, Liberty Road and many others. Much of Sonoma Mountain Road ranks at the bottom – “Very Poor” on the county’s Pavement Condition Index – and the eastern section of the road accessed from Warm Springs Road was closed by road collapse not too long ago.
“I’ve had challenges trying to figure out how I could support a good project in a dangerous location,” said 1st District Supervisor Susan Gorin, who proclaimed admiration for the Beldens’ vision of a hands-on sustainable farming project. But in light of the still-ongoing county-wide discussion about the proliferation of winery events, Gorin’s strenuous arguments against creating a precedent for winery events in an otherwise-rural section of her district fell on deaf ears.
It ended with a 4-1 vote, with Gorin in dissent. The outcome echoed a Board of Supervisors fight last January over vacation rental limitations, which again found Gorin on the short end of a vote that rejected her proposed moratorium on vacation rentals permits.
“It was frustrating for me,” she told the Index-Tribune following Tuesday’s meeting. “They ignored my comments and concerns, they ignored the comments and concerns of many neighbors who travel the road daily.”
Among them was James Casciani, who said he was in a bicycle-vs.-truck accident on a narrow section of Sonoma Mountain Road a couple of years ago, which resulted in him being airlifted to a hospital and enduring a half-million dollars’ worth of life-saving and reconstructive surgery. “If this passes, the board may be responsible not just for the scars and plates in my face, but people’s lives,” he said.
His accident was on a narrow, winding section of Sonoma Mountain Road east of the Belden site, a section shadowed by towering redwoods where the speed limit drops to 10 mph. The Environmental Impact Report on the project – which Gorin and others felt gave short shrift to serious traffic concerns – focused its analysis on the access to the Belden Barns property from the west, off Bennett Valley Road and past the Pressley Road juncture.