It turns out the 4-1 vote by the Sonoma County Supervisors in November, 2016, to grant a conditional use permit to Belden Barns was not the last step in a long process after all. The Beldens, Nate and Lauren, hoped to open their dream farm – a 10,000-case winery, 10,000-pound cheese factory, gift shop and visitor’s center – on Sonoma Mountain Road, and the November 15 vote said they could.
But the Friends of Sonoma Mountain Road disagreed, challenging the board’s certification of the Environmental Impact Report’s analysis of the project’s impacts on traffic, hydrology, land use and noise. They filed suit against the county in December, and over six months later the Board voted in closed session on June 13 to accept the terms of the settlement.
For Belden Barns, it marks a not-insignificant constriction of the application accepted last year; for Friends of Sonoma Mountain Roads, a validation at the end of a long process.
Amy Rodney, a Sonoma Mountain Road neighbor, said the lawsuit "was brought because the Board did not adequately address the concerns raised by EIR especially the failures related to winery and creamery waste, traffic and safety, the nature of the area which has zero commercial development, the wildlife corridor and other things."
The legal action resulted in minor modifications of the conditions of approval, and several additional environmental review clauses, noted 1st District Supervisor Susan Gorin in whose district the controversial winery and road are located – and who cast the sole vote against approval last November. “However, this project raised the awareness of the community regarding the conditions of our roads and where we approve visitor generating services. Settlement of this issue at this time is in the best interests of the neighbors and Nate and Lauren Belden.”
The primary reason for the suit is the compromised condition of Sonoma Mountain Road, sometimes voted the worst in the county, in places poorly marked and with poor visibility, and the neighbors’ efforts to forestall turning the road into a tourist thoroughfare.
One portion of the road in particular, turning off from Warm Springs Road, is particularly steep and narrow, and one of the key terms of the agreement is that Belden Barns pay for a “No Access to Belden Barns Winery” sign on that intersection, to discourage Belden’s customers or tourists from using it for their visits. A similar sign is to be posted at Enterprise and Bennett Valley Roads, another access to the inner reaches of Sonoma Mountain Road.
The agreement reduces tasting room hours to Saturdays only in January through March, and five days a week the rest of the year, by appointment only. Visitors who arrive without an appointment will not be allowed to taste, according to the settlement terms provided by the Sonoma County Counsel’s Office.
The agreement also forbids participation in industry-wide events (such as Taste of the Valley), limits events to eight per year – only one of which is likely to run past sunset – and only one wedding per year, which must be for a family member or a long-standing personal friend.
Friends of Sonoma Mountain Road (FOSMR), an organization that includes a number of neighbors of the Beldens, must be notified not only of planned event but guest lists for those events – even that wedding – among other reporting requirements.