The contentious Dairyman project hit an obstacle in September with the response from the Sonoma County Regional Parks denying access across the Joe Rodota trail for the project. Residents and community groups throughout Sonoma County have opposed the project from the beginning, voicing that the large-scale winery and event center would not only violate zoning to the trail drastically effecting traffic, harm the ecosystem to the Laguna de Santa Rosa and negatively influence the overall character to the rural charm of West County.
In a Sept. 17 letter from Sonoma County Regional Parks (SCRP) Director Caryl Hart to Permit and Resource Management Department’s (PMRD) Supervising Planner Traci Tesconi, Hart wrote that the land owner currently has no legal rights to cross the trail and crosses at the county’s sufferance.
The letter also goes on to state that in 2012, an engineer for the applicant had begun discussion with the Regional Parks about obtaining an easement from the county. There was more correspondence in 2013 about the agreement and a representative of JJW Estate LLC provided Regional Parks with an appraisal for an access easement.
“The current driveway that crosses the trail is a narrow dirt road to access the vineyards. The appraiser was apparently not made aware of the applicant’s plans and did not discuss them. All previous discussions occurred before it was disclosed to Regional Parks that the applicant was seeking an access point for a large and crossing-intensive project.”
Hart also wrote that Regional Parks appreciated the referral of the project to the Sonoma County Bicycle & Pedestrian Committee and that they concluded that an at-grade crossing of the trail for the project would be unsafe and inappropriate.
“The committee is correct. Given the events and number of visitors, there will be either be queuing of motor vehicles onto Highway 12 or there will be inadequate safety controls on motorists who cross the trail. Moreover, even absent these issues, the number of crossings for this use would create unacceptable safety hazards and related problems for the trail,” Hart said.
Head of the Sonoma County Bicycle Coalition Gary Helfrich said with the Jo Rodota trail being a regional recreational amenity, it is just as important to people in Santa Rosa and Sebastopol as it is to people living in the unincorporated county where the trail runs.
“The trail is very unique in that way,” Helfrich said.
According to the Metropolitan Transportation Commission there has been a 300 percent increase of use of the trail in 10 years. Helfrich said on a nice weekend the trail is like a giant linear park. Regional Parks records approximately 1,000 people a day passing the Dairyman driveway that crosses the trail.
“The applicant is asking for permission to degrade an existing public park that’s quite popular so that he can recognize higher income from his property,” Helfrich said. “The point that the Parks department makes is that what the property owner is trying to create degrades the trail and you don’t get to degrade a public facility for personal gain.”
The owner of the Dairyman property is Joe Wagner, 33-year-old wine entrepreneur and considered as one of the big competitors in the North Coast wine industry. Wagner has said he would consider a tunnel as an option for vehicles to enter the proposed winery from Highway 12.
Wagner’s attorney Kevin Block with Meyer Block Wine Lawyers in Napa sent a letter to SCRP on Nov. 6 requesting records in the possession of Sonoma County. Block stated in his letter that he was looking for communication between the county, the grantor and any state or federal agencies that were involved.
“As well as any records of hearings or meeting, resolutions, environmental documents, (unrecorded) access or crossing agreements, easements or licenses, memos or analyses and the like,” the letter adds.
SCRP Park Planner Kenneth Tam responded to Block’s request in a letter stating that they estimated the relevant records would be available for review within a month. Wagner did not return phone calls regarding the status of his future plans are moving forward.
Tesconi said that the current application may need revisions and is far from being ready for any scoping session.
Wagner’s proposed Dairyman Winery and Event Center would include 500,000 cases of wine and 250,000 gallons of distilled spirits, 64 yearly events with 600 attendees allowed until 10 p.m. with 87, 000 square feet of production and office areas as well as public tours and tastings seven days a week while open from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. for retail sales.
This would make the project one of the largest wineries in Sonoma County on on agriculturally zoned community separator.
With the Dec. 15 community separator study session planned, groups such as Preserve Rural Sonoma County (PRSC) are concerned with the language in the General Plan. Founder of PRSC Padi Selwyn said specific policies in the plan should be removed as they create loopholes for site facilities such as Dairyman.
“We’re watching the Dairyman project very closely because it is right in the middle of a community separator and it’s not located in an area where industrialization should take place,” Selwyn said. “We are supporting strengthening and extending community separator language and removing language that is vague that allows officials discretionary approvability.”
Specifically policy OSRC-1c in the General Plan, which states that “additional or varied development with community separators on a case-by-case basis if, at a minimum within certain criteria is met.” Selwyn said this is a development loophole and doesn’t support the wine industry in truly being sustainable.
“The wine industry is touting themselves as sustainable,” Selwyn said. “I think that the fact that they are trying to use better business practices is admirable and positive. But you can’t look at sustainability winery, by winery, by winery. You have to look at the cumulative impact of the whole industry, not case by case.”
Selwyn said groups like PRSC and other groups like Greenbelt Alliance and Sonoma County Conservation Action are looking at the big picture of the whole county around development, community separators and a sustainable future for the area.
“We’re watching the Dairyman project very closely because it is right in the middle of a community separator and it’s not located in an area where industrialization should take place,” Selwyn said.
With such a large development in a community separator, Selwyn said it violates the intent of the greenbelts, which also would convert agricultural zoning into industrial bottling and distillery use rather than agriculture.
Selwyn said she is not against the wine industry; she simply encourages projects such as winery event centers to be in urban areas or town centers.
“We are their customers and their neighbors, we love wine,” Selwyn said. “We are grateful for the contributions of the wine industry to our communities. However, we are against the rampant over-expansion and the negative cumulative impact that accompany that expansion.”