Belden Barns given the green light
Over the protests of a large group of neighbors and First District Supervisor Susan Gorin, the Sonoma County Board of Supervisors approved the Belden Barns project on Sonoma Mountain Road, the first development of its kind on what is considered one of the county’s worst roadways.
Years of discussion, litigation, environmental review, and extensive public input, pro and con, came down to a more than four-hour hearing on Nov. 15, with a 4-1 majority on the board giving the OK to a 10,000-case winery, 10,000-pound cheese making facility, with retail sales, tasting by appointment, and up to eight agricultural promotional events with 60 to 200 attendees.
Current structures on the property would be torn down, and 15,851 square feet of new buildings would be constructed – a production facility, tasting room, and employee housing unit.
In its approval, the majority of the board certified the project’s voluminous Environmental Impact Report (EIR), which concluded that any environmental impacts could be mitigated to a “less than significant” level.
The Belden Barns development is located at 5561 Sonoma Mountain Road, about a mile and a half east of the Pressley Road/Sonoma Mountain Road intersection. The property is a 55-acre parcel, which Nate and Laura Belden bought in 2005. Part of the property borders the county’s North Sonoma Mountain Regional Park.
At the Nov. 15 hearing, public speakers as well as all the board members praised the Beldens for their family farm concept, but for many it was all about location, location, location.
“It’s a great project in the wrong place,” said Gorin, who cast the lone dissenting vote against Belden Barns. Gorin maintained that Sonoma Mountain Road is not in any shape to handle the estimated 10,000-15,000 possible visitors a year to Belden Barns.
“This road is very, very dangerous,” said Gorin, who said she was “absolutely stunned” that the project had no proposed mitigations for the road.
Sonoma Mountain Road is a total of 7.5 miles, often narrow with no shoulders, with blind curves in some places. Pavement is deteriorating in many portions, and the road has had a history of washouts due to heavy rains.
Gorin and a number of neighbors expressed concern about mixing alcohol with a challenging road, especially during any nighttime events. It was suggested by some that the Beldens could have an off-site tasting room to keep people off the road. Representatives of the Beldens have said this idea was economically infeasible for the direct-to-consumer business they have designed.
The majority of supervisors found no major issues with the Belden Barns project, satisfied that the EIR had adequately analyzed issues such as traffic, hydrology and noise.
One issue that was brought up at the hearing was the potential impact on an important wildlife corridor that runs adjacent to the project. Neighbors and community groups had expressed concern about noise and light on wildlife migration through the corridor.
However, the environmental consultant who conducted the EIR, sent a letter for the Nov. 15 hearing with an analysis concluding that there would be no significant impacts of noise and glare on the wildlife corridors.
Most of the supervisors said that they considered the project small, that it would have minimal impacts on neighbors and the environment, and praised the Beldens for their idea of having an economically self-sufficient farm that would grow and sell a variety of agricultural products.
“What the Beldens are trying to do is exactly what we’ve been talking about on a bigger scale in Sonoma County,” said Supervisor David Rabbit. “Have diversified agriculture, small scale, family owned, and workforce housing all rolled into one.”
Amy Rodney of Friends of Sonoma Mountain, a neighbor group who had sued the county over an earlier approval in 2014 of Belden Barns, said after the meeting that, “We were extremely disappointed by the Board’s approval of the proposed tasting room, creamery and events on one of the worst roads in the county, ignoring many significant environmental and other impacts.”
Rodney said the group objected to new documents introduced by the county and the developer the day of the hearing, including the environmental consultant’s letter regarding the wildlife corridor. Rodney said that Friends of Sonoma County is evaluating the possibility of appealing the board’s decision to Sonoma County Superior Court.
Nate Belden said he respected the permitting process, but that it had been “long, frustrating, and stressful” for his family.
“More generally,” wrote Belden in an email, ”the process has highlighted that these delays and types of expenses are prohibitive for people who want to start small family farms, which is disappointing.”
As for Gorin, it wasn’t the first time she has butted heads with her colleagues over issues surrounding tourism, agriculture, and impacts on county residents.
“It’s disappointing that once again the Board did not acknowledge how the First District differs from the rest of the County,” said Gorin, “Or respect my knowledge or suggestions on how to increase the safety of our roads for visitors.”
“As the Board tackles a broad-based discussion of winery and events in the spring, I will be seeking specific conditions for the district that promote agriculture and mitigate impacts in the community.”