Sonoma’s ‘worst road’ gets a winery

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.

Indeed one of the mitigations in the EIR was for “providing direction to tasting room visitors to access the site from the west via Pressley Road or Bennett Valley Road.” And the Beldens asserted that most of their visitation to this point has come from Marin County and the greater Bay Area, for which access from the west is more likely.

But as Gorin pointed out, there’s no assurance that Sonoma Valley visitors won’t just follow their cell phone GPS to head up Sonoma Valley Road from Warm Springs Road, just outside of Glen Ellen – a section of road whose collapse several years ago led to the creation of SOS Roads, an advocacy group to prioritize road repair in the county. The road was “discontinuous” for a couple years, though it was eventually repaired – only to suffer further damage during last year’s winter weather.

“By my calculations, once this project is completed, it could attract as many as 15,000 visitors up to that site each year,” said Gorin, basing her numbers on the projected visitation in the EIR. “I was stunned” – a word she repeated – “stunned that the EIR did not find that this amount of visitors coming to that site had any effect, and, in fact, had no specified mitigations to improve the safety of the road.”

But without a specified impact in the EIR, or “nexus,” the county had little leverage to impose further road-safety mitigations on the Belden project. Supervisor David Rabbitt told the Index-Tribune, “CEQA law states the applicant is not required to take action when an impact is studied and the impacts are deemed to be less than significant.”

When it became clear the rest of the board was disinterested in the road-safety issue, or certainly not compelled to make it a condition of approval, Gorin aggressively suggested that the estimated $3 million to $10 million to repair or rebuild Sonoma Mountain Road should come out of Measure L funds, the extra money raised by the recent increase in TOT fees from 9 to 12 percent, instead of her district’s funds.

“Here we have a winery being located on one of the worst roads in the county, and I felt it’s totally appropriate to use the additional revenue from Measure L to start funding the repairs to Sonoma Mountain Road,” she said. “I thought it was a logical connection, and they (the supervisors) chose to disregard my comments and suggestion.”

Gorin’s final effort to control potential risk of an alcohol-related business on Sonoma Mountain Road was to require that its special events conclude before dusk, so participants would have a chance to get off the worst section of road before nightfall. Although the tasting room at Belden Barns would be open from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. seven days a week, the eight events each year could extend to the county’s de facto 9:30 p.m. end time for winery events, at least half the year well into nighttime hours.

The PRMD personnel on hand, including director Tennis Wick, deputy director Jennifer Barrett, and project planner Melinda Grosch, seemed to agree it would present no problem to their department to add that as a requirement, but general disinterest from the other supervisors, once again, isolated Gorin from her colleagues.

Gorin told the I-T she continues “to learn lessons and experience frustrations” as to her disagreement on this issue with board colleagues.

“I know that I represent the viewpoint not only of so many people on Sonoma Mountain Road,” said Gorin, “but also from Sonoma Valley and countywide, because I’ve heard from them today.”

Continued Gorin: “In years past, in previous boards of supervisors, there has been some deference paid to a supervisor and his or her attitude regarding a project in the district they represent. And that doesn’t seem to be the case now.”

Contact Christian at christian.kallen@sonomanews.com.