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Winery project at former Stornetta dairy fails to win SVCAC endorsement

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Last Wednesday’s Sonoma Citizens Advisory Commission had kind words but harsh votes for the Fremont Ranch Winery project, proposed for the site of the old Stornetta Dairy, at the busy intersection of Highway 121/Fremont Drive, and Napa Road.

And that’s part of the problem, at least to judge by the response of the SVCAC. Traffic was one of the big issues, not surprisingly, along with the project’s proposed 20 events per year schedule.

“We knew coming into it that events and traffic would be an important thing,” said Chris Economou, vice president of real estate for the current owners of the historic property, Leslie Rudd Investment Company (LRIco).

Though Economou said they had consulted Permit Sonoma and others about what issues might prove problematical in their proposal for a 60,000-case, 20-event-per-year winery and tasting room on the historic 58.65 parcel, that hadn’t bargained on the response they got from the SVCAC.

Unlike some recent meetings, most of the feedback did come from the commissioners, not public comment: only Kathy Pons, of the Valley of the Moon Alliance, and the ever-attentive Fred Allebach, according to his own report in the Sonoma Sun, raised issues from the floor.

The traffic issue received a great deal of attention, given the nexus-like nature of the intersection. With continued commute issues on State Route 37 to the south of Highway 121, it’s expected that the more rural Fremont Drive will experience increasing traffic problems in coming years.

Though Economou pointed out their proposal did include a traffic study by W Trans, the commissioners were still cautious.

“Really what it came down to is the project was larger than what they’d like to see,” said Economou.

The commissioners – chaired by Ryan Lely – drilled into water issues as well, since the property’s groundwater is possibly compromised by saline infiltration from nearby San Pablo Bay. The need for a deep well into a groundwater aquifer raises long-term sustainability concerns.

Ultimately and to the surprise of the applicants, a motion to approve the project failed to get a second, while a motion to deny passed 7-1. “It was unexpected, because we had done the due diligence to meet the criteria for that project,” said Economou.

LRico purchased the property in early 2017, well before the October fires. Prior to and since the fires, the company has done much clean-up and restoration of the property, Economou said.

“We’ve cleaned it up significantly, cleaned the burnt-down buildings, done a lot of work on some the issues on site, such as the old underground storage tanks,” he said. “We’ve done a lot of work to make sure the site was cleaned up and prepared for the next project.”

Economou said they would move forward with a slightly downscaled version of the project, “probably about 30 percent” smaller than the one proposed last week to SVCAC.

“We’re looking forward to working with the community, and forward to building a project that is in line that suitable for Sonoma County,” he said.

Pallet factory review

The commission then took a look at the Sonoma Pacific Company’s plans to expand their pallet factory at Broadway and Fremont Drive, which just over a month ago suffered their third fire in a 10-year period. The proposed expansion would add mulch grinding and sales to the facility’s operations and double the pallet manufacturing from 3,000 to 6,000 pallets per day.

Thomas Thompson explained the many steps he was taking to reduce fire risk, especially following several skeptical comments from several neighbors in attendance.

Norman Gilroy was particularly concerned about the proximity of the factory to up to 160 LPG tankers stored at nearby Schellville, seasonally full of highly-explosive “winter blend” of liquid petroleum.

“Only reason we didn’t have a fire there last time is because wind was blowing from the bay, and it took the smoke and the heat farther into the property,” he said. “Had it come when the wind was blowing like it was in October, it could have easily blown over the highway and arrived at the tanker cars.”

Northwestern Pacific rail officials downplay the danger of the tankers catching fire.

But Gilroy’s warning, and those from neighbors adjacent to the SPC facility, compelled the SVCAC to include in their motion to approve a request for PRMD to require a fire safety and hazard study at the property – and to include the area where the tanker cars are parked. The study would also include and analysis of environmental impacts including water run-off, noise and odor.

The motion to approve passed unanimously, though the SVCAC is an advisory body only, and ultimately decisions rest with the county Board of Zoning Adjustments, Planning Commission and Board of Supervisors.

Contact Christian at christian.kallen@sonomanews.com.

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