The Kenwood Press
News: 11/15/2016

Resort design review appealed

Alec Peters

The Valley of the Moon Alliance (VOTMA) has gone forward with filing an appeal of a recent county Design Review Committee’s (DRC) decision that approved the design of part of a planned major resort which was approved back in 2004, but never built.

The relatively new owners of the Sonoma Country Inn project, to be located on the former Graywood Ranch located on Highway 12 opposite Lawndale Road in Kenwood, want to start construction of a 50-room hotel, restaurant and spa. The DRC approved the design details (i.e., site layout, architecture, landscaping), at its Oct. 19 meeting by a 2-1 vote, technically triggering the ability for the developer, Tohigh Investments, to apply for grading and building permits.

That may be on hold now due to a 22-page appeal by the community group VOTMA. The Sonoma County Board of Supervisors approved the use permits for the resort (which also includes 11 home sites and a winery) back in 2004. VOTMA challenged that decision in court at the time, but eventually lost.

VOTMA’s appeal of the recent DRC decision would be heard by the Planning Commission at a future date.

According to an email from Maggie Fleming, communications manager for the county’s Permit and Resource Management Department (PRMD), “PRMD is still reviewing the lengthy appeal it received and does not have a scheduled date for the appeal hearing. It will likely be a minimum of 4-5 months from now.”

In the appeal, VOTMA wrote that there had been enough significant changes in the site plan and design specifics from what was approved 12 years ago to warrant another look at impacts on the environment.

The changes VOTMA points out include a relocation of some of the 19 cottages, changes in parking layouts, the removal of trees in “critical areas” in terms of visibility, and the replacement of a roof on a main lodge building with a rooftop garden.

“These proposed modifications will have significant adverse environmental effects that were not evaluated by PRMD staff or considered by the DRC in its decision to approve 100 percent of the modifications proposed by Tohigh.”

At the Oct. 19 DRC meeting, one of the committee members, Peter Wurtz, cast a no vote, stating he couldn’t “accept a site plan that’s vastly different than what was approved.”

The majority of committee members, though, said it was not within the committee’s purview to evaluate the environmental impacts of any moved structures, but to just review the design that was presented to them.

The PRMD planner on the project had written in a staff report that she determined the current project is almost exactly the same as what was first approved, with “minor modifications to structures and facilities.”

Attempts to develop a resort on the former Graywood Ranch date back to 1984 when a plan for a hotel, winery, and home sites was approved by the Board of Supervisors.

In 2000, part of the ranch was bought by a group of investors, led by the late Save Mart Supermarkets owner Bob Piccinini, for an estimated $7-$8 million.

A new resort project was proposed, which was approved by the Board of Supervisors in 2004. Legal challenges involving the project’s Environmental Impact Report ended in 2006 in favor of the developer.

The nationwide economic downturn and financial crisis starting in 2008 put the Sonoma Country Inn on hold. Ownership eventually changed, with Tohigh Investments, a part Chinese conglomerate Oceanwide Holdings, buying the property at the end of 2014 for $41 million.