Grassroots organization wants county to deny Rodota easement

A massive winery proposed by a Napa County winemaker near the crossroads of Highway 12 and Llano Road east of Sebastopol will now be subject to a full environmental review, but opponents of the project are still pulling out all the stops in hopes of stopping it.

The applicant, Joe Wagner, a second-generation vintner from the Caymus winemaking family, agreed to a full environmental impact report (EIR) early this month for his Dairyman project after receiving significant backlash from the community.

Opposition to the proposed winery and event center that envisions 500,000 cases of wine production a year, 250,000 gallons of distilled spirits, as well as about 60 events a year and wine tasting, became official at a Feb. 4 Sebastopol city council meeting.

Although the 68-acre property is outside of Sebastopol’s jurisdiction, council voiced opposition to the project and solidarity with members of the public that showed up in force once the winery application became public in late January.

“After (the council meeting), we met with a number of people and decided we needed to mobilize,” Ruben Weinzeg said.

To that end, Weinzeg joined a group spearheading the creation of Neighbors to Preserve Rural Sonoma County (PRSC), which is working in partnership with the Rural Alliance, a local grassroots organization “working to preserve the natural resources and rural character of Sonoma County.”

PRSC believes it has discovered a technicality that could throw a wrench in the works, as the winery will need to get an easement to cross the Joe Rodota Trail for access to the property.

The groups are encouraging the Sonoma County Parks and Recreation Department to deny the easement, citing precedence when the county denied an easement to Santa Rosa Junior College for a 20-acre parcel on Highway 116 to the north of Sebastopol that abuts the JRT.

That property now belongs to Sebastopol Independent Charter School, which is in talks with the county Regional Parks Department.

But the Dairyman process is still in its infancy, as the EIR will take at least a year and has not even officially begun as yet.

“The property owner has agreed to the preparation of an EIR for the project,” PRMD Planner Traci Tesconi wrote in a recent email. “In two weeks, PRMD staff is meeting with the property owner and his counsel to discuss the next steps. PRMD sends out the Notice of Preparation and then begins the contract process required to hire an EIR consultant.”

Regional Parks maintains it will not even get involved until after the EIR is complete.

“I have gotten a number of emails on this topic, and can assure you that Regional Parks will not be taking any action prior to the full EIR on the project,” Parks Director Caryl Hart said.

But as the EIR would cost Wagner at least $500,000, PRSC is asking the board of supervisors to expedite the easement decision rather than “kick the can down the road.”

“We respectfully request that the Board of Supervisors reconsider this plan to postpone the easement decision until the EIR has been completed,” PRSC Co-chair Padi Selwig wrote in a letter to the board dated April 14, 2015. “It would be irresponsible to have Mr. Wagner spend his time and money on studies that may prove to be useless if an easement is eventually denied.”

Wagner wants to assure the community that he has its best interests in mind.

“We want to find a way to make it work for everybody,” he said. “We will find a fix for it, but people need to be open-minded.”

Although Wagner has purchased grapes grown on 40 acres of the parcel for several years, opponents point out that “99 percent” of the grapes used for the expected production will come from elsewhere and have to be trucked in, which they say is cause for alarm.

“This is not about wineries,” Selwig said. “A lot of us belong to wine clubs, but there’s a time and a place (for these types of operations).”

Selwig said PRSC will be watching closely and getting involved in the scoping process for the EIR.

As to Wagner, he continues to hope he can find a way to work with the community and that the issues brought forward are not being used to kill the project.

“In past operations, the property has been used for heavy industrial purposes, such as gypsum reclamation,” Wagner said. “People often forget past uses.”

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