Sonoma Cheese Factory is exhuming old use permit to allow new remodel

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The Sonoma Cheese Factory will forgo its ambitious planned expansion and instead remodel on a smaller scale under its existing use permit, owners of the venerable Plaza business announced this weekend.

The Viviani Trust, owners of the iconic Plaza food and cheese shop on Spain Street, clarified the path forward for the embattled deli’s future in a message to stakeholders saying it would abandon its plans for a significant remodel and instead revive a 15-year-old use permit to, in their words, “make the SCF better, not bigger.”

“Pete Viviani had a vision,” the message read, regarding the Cheese Factory’s late founder. “He wanted a multi-tenant marketplace that embraces the local food culture of Sonoma, where locals and guests could gather and socialize.” It continued to say that Pete’s daughters, Maria and Nina Viviani – who comprise the Viviani Trust – “are working to make Pete’s vision a reality.”

“Our team has developed its best ideas to honor our family’s legacy and the Plaza’s heritage, to bring an updated look to the property by remodeling the existing building, and to help boost year-round business in this beloved part of Sonoma,” Maria and Nina Viviani wrote at sonomacheesefactory.com.

Maria Viviani also reaffirmed plans to reopen the Sonoma Cheese Factory in the spring, following a winter hiatus that began Dec. 31, 2018, although no reopening date was announced.

The Sonoma Planning Commission last year approved an application from Napa developer Steve Carlin for an Oxbow-style collection of vendors and restaurants that called for a substantial remodeling of the historic Spain Street building, increasing its footprint to 25,000 square feet of interior commercial space, two restaurant tenant spaces and a total of 245 indoor seats and 72 outdoor seats throughout the project. The plan would have called for the demolition of much of the building, though its distinctive salmon tile façade that faces the Sonoma Plaza would remain.

That plan was approved by the commission in April on a 5-2 vote. It was appealed to the City Council, which delayed the hearing at Carlin’s request in July. But the Planning Commission this week is reviewing a previously approved use permit for the 2 W. Spain St. location, issued in May, 2004 – almost 15 years ago.

The commission is undertaking the review at the request of the Viviani Trust, which owns the property. Viviana Trust attorney Alicia Guerra asked the commission if the permit issued in 2004 had expired or if it was still valid, which would allow the Trust to continue remodeling the Cheese Factory under the terms of the previously-approved use permit.

The 2004 use permit allowed for the remodeling of the existing 11,420 square feet of building space, for a maximum of nine tenant spaces. The application also requested expansion/additions totaling 8,480 square feet, though that request was denied. Instead, approval for the expansion was delayed until the long-standing issue of off-site parking could be resolved.

According to the project summary issued with the agenda report, the Trust began work on the remodel and it was completed and approved for occupancy, in March 2006. Two additional building permits were filed, and approved, that same year.

The question facing the Planning Commission is: If the 2004 use permit was approved and at least partially fulfilled, is it still valid and in force?

Additionally, the commission will consider whether the Cheese Factory can continue under its terms with further building and remodeling projects, without having the matter come before the City Council for consideration.

The staff’s recommendation is to recognize that the 2004 use permit has not expired and that, under its terms, work can continue on the conversion of the existing Sonoma Cheese Factory building into a multi-tenant retail center.

Inquiries into the Carlin Group’s continued association with the project were not responded to by press time.

Thursday will mark the first time the newly-constituted Sonoma Planning Commission will meet this year, with its assortment of new, renewed and experienced members. The composition of the seven-member, one-alternate panel is now Robert Felder, Larry Barnett, Steve Barbose, Kelso Barnett, James Bohar, James Cribb, Ron Wellander, Sheila O’Neill and alternate Robert McDonald.

The Sonoma Planning Commission meets Thursday, Feb. 21 at 6:30 p.m. in the City Council Chambers, 177 W. Napa St., Sonoma.

Contact Christian at christian.kallen@sonomanews.com.

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