Sonoma Valley growth sparks debate over area's future
The “Scenic Route” sign on Highway 12 announces the obvious to motorists heading into the Valley of the Moon. It's cradled by mountains, dotted with giant oaks, horse ranches, vineyards, remnants of old orchards and the odd water tower.
The road delivers inspiring views of imposing Hood Mountain, its craggy face standing sentinel over a historic route from Santa Rosa to Sonoma that carried stagecoaches and trains before the automobile took over.
But today, the two-lane highway is crowded with traffic generated by commuters, residential and commercial development, sightseers and visitors headed to wineries and tasting rooms.
The northern arm of Sonoma Valley, between Madrone and Melita roads, is home to more than 40 tasting rooms and event centers that each year attract more than 140,000 people to special events. They could be joined by another half-dozen or more tasting rooms and more than 110 annual special events with 20,000 more people if permits in the pipeline previously approved, but not yet built, are exercised.
The burgeoning wine industry and plans for a high-end luxury hotel, spa and winery off La Campagna Lane in Kenwood have especially drawn attention and opposition while highlighting the impact of development along the county's busiest wine road.
The growth has set off alarms among rural residents concerned about the loss of agricultural land and the vehicles and noise generated by winery events, especially on weekends. They raise the specter of “Napafication,” the fear that roads will become as clogged as in Napa Valley, where traffic on Highway 29 slows to a long crawl on Saturdays and Sundays when visitors stream to the abundant large corporate-owned wineries.
The projects have sparked a debate inside Sonoma Valley over its future, one that comes at a time when the county is having a similar conversation about how to maintain the vitality of the wine and tourism industries while preventing activity that diminishes the rural character of the region.
“I'm very concerned about the growth of wineries, events and tasting rooms in the Sonoma Valley in a couple of different areas,” said Supervisor Susan Gorin, whose district is sprinkled with 120 wineries and tasting rooms in the Sonoma Valley and Carneros regions.
Gorin, along with a majority of county supervisors, last year reached consensus on the need for new regulations on what is one of the largest sectors of the local economy - wine-related tourism, which generates more than $1.25 billion in Sonoma County each year.
Supervisors signaled the wine industry will face greater county scrutiny and potential limits on new development and business activity, not only in Sonoma Valley but also north of Healdsburg, along Westside Road and the Dry Creek Valley, which have a plethora of wineries and even narrower roads.
The issue is expected to come back before the Board of Supervisors later this year.
Wine industry leaders say events are a vital tool for local vintners to sell their wines and remain competitive, and complaints tend to be relatively few.
Overall, they say their surveys show Sonoma County wineries and events have high favorability ratings among the public. They fear any large-scale overhaul that restricts events could drive wineries - especially smaller ones - out of business.
“Growth isn't all wineries,” said Jean Arnold Sessions, executive director of Sonoma County Vintners, a winemakers' trade group. “To me, the bigger issue vintners and the community face is how to integrate this growth to protect our rural agriculture.”
The wine industry is just one contributor to the traffic on the most scenic part of Highway 12 from Santa Rosa through the Sonoma Valley to Madrone Road.
As many as 6,000 people live along that 12-mile stretch, including 1,000 Kenwood residents and 4,500 residents of Oakmont, a retirement community created in the early 1960s and annexed to Santa Rosa. Highway 12 is their primary thoroughfare, but the two-lane country road also serves as a major corridor for people traveling between Santa Rosa and Sonoma as well as those continuing on to Napa and Solano counties and Sacramento.
State traffic counts show the number of vehicles traveling through Kenwood increased by almost 40 percent between 1993 and 2015, going from an average of 13,000 vehicles a day to 18,100 at the intersection with Adobe Canyon Road.
Traffic actually decreased for a number of years after the recession hit in 2007, but it's gradually been creeping back up, and milelong crawls at evening rush hour near Oakmont are increasingly common.
It's not all about traffic. Sometimes it's the noise from amplified music, lights that brighten the night sky or depletion of groundwater supplies that are the issues for residents who value their country living. In places like Kenwood, they get exasperated with their driveway being blocked, jammed parking lots and visitors walking alongside the road, wine glass in hand, going from one tasting room to the next.