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Kenwood resort moving forward

A proposed luxury hotel resort and winery in Kenwood that withstood court challenges before languishing for more than a decade is again moving ahead following a favorable decision from the Sonoma County Planning Commission.

Despite a vigorous campaign by opponents, the commission on Thursday unanimously upheld design changes to the future inn, spa and restaurant and affirmed that the project has a vested right to go forward.

“Legally we really don’t have a big leg to stand on if we decide this project isn’t going to go through,” said Commissioner Dick Fogg, adding that the design changes were not sufficient to require further review, or delay.

“I think it’s a better design. I like it,” said Commissioner John Lowry, echoing the comments of his colleagues on the 50-room hotel, luxury spa and 125-seat restaurant and bar. A relatively small 10,000-case winery and 11 homes that were previously approved have yet to undergo design review.

Opponents led by the Valley of the Moon Alliance have been fighting the hotel and resort since its inception about 15 years ago, viewing it as part of the steady onslaught of wineries, tasting rooms and events that have altered the face of the picturesque valley and piled more cars onto busy Highway 12.

The resort and winery on 186 acres off Highway 12 opposite Lawndale Road was approved by the Board of Supervisors in 2004 before its environmental impact report withstood a court challenge, as well as an appeals court decision. The recession also set in around that time.

The project was proposed by Bob Piccinini, chairman and CEO of Save Mart Supermarkets. He partnered at one point with Auberge Resorts – which specializes in five-star hotels worldwide – to build and operate the hotel.

The site was purchased in late 2014 for $41 million by Tohigh Property Investment, a subsidiary of Chinese developer Oceanwide Holdings. The project is now dubbed the Resort at Sonoma Country Inn.

Last year, Tohigh obtained design review approval for the project. But opponents challenged changes that were made, saying they were significant enough to require more environmental study. They also argued that cumulative impacts of development along Highway 12 since the project was approved should require more study.

“It’s a big project and we really need to be diligent in making it the least invasive we can,” said Kathy Pons, president of the Valley of the Moon Alliance.

Her organization focused on modifications to the parking layout, redesign to the bar and restaurant, lighting, water and noise impacts, as well as traffic.

They also objected to a roof garden to replace a pitched slate roof, part of an open air restaurant and bar they argued would create more noise and attract more visitors to the Sonoma Valley.

“It will be the most attractive destination point in the Valley,” said alliance board member Roger Peters, predicting it would add even more vehicles to Highway 12.

But a recent traffic study found there were fewer vehicles on the highway between Melita and Lawndale roads than had been predicted in the resort’s original environmental study.

Instead of the 2,060 vehicles per peak hour predicted on Fridays, a recent Caltrans count found 1,700 vehicles per hour, 21 percent less than forecast by the study.

Regardless of how bad traffic is, or isn’t, it really wasn’t part of the Planning Commission’s considerations for a project that was given a green light in 2004.

“Everyone knows there are traffic issues on Highway 12. It’s not germane to what we’re doing here,” said Commissioner Todd Tamura, in upholding the project design.

Pons said she is uncertain if her organization will appeal to the Board of Supervisors, the last hope for changing the project.

A spokesman for the developer expressed confidence that they will prevail, adding that construction could start next year.

“We’re confident we will continue to move the project forward,” said Rob Muelrath, a Santa Rosa-based consultant who represents the developers. “What’s important to understand is this project already has in place its tentative map. It’s already approved.”

Contact Clark at clark.mason@pressdemocrat.com.