At a crossroads
By Rick Hill, Valley of the Moon Alliance
The past winter’s abundant rainfall is ushering in a deep, verdant spring in Sonoma Valley. Breathtaking vistas remind us of what we cherish about the Valley of the Moon. Yet our sighs of relief following years of drought are tempered by tensions in Kenwood about VJB’s marketplace on Highway 12. The Sonoma Valley Citizens Advisory Committee’s (SVCAC) April 26 hearing on that subject made clear that preserving the rural character and dynamic economy in this Valley will require honest, persistent stewardship from all of us.
A broad range of issues were discussed at the hearing, from parking lots and safe turning movements, to when does a marketplace become a restaurant, or what constitutes a “kitchen” or “special event.” The SVCAC hearing highlighted the perils of Permit and Resource Management Department (PRMD) issuing building permits in conflict with a Conditional Use Permit (CUP) that they themselves authored; and most crucially, what will the consequences be when a CUP has been misconstrued or violated?
Sonoma Valley has grown and prospered as a destination for wine tourism and events. Not surprisingly, impacts on locals’ quality of life have increased too, with traffic, parking, and safety issues paramount. Since 2010, crowds enjoying VJB’s marketplace during peak season have aggravated conditions more than any current business in Kenwood.
VJB Cellars and retail sales shop have operated under a CUP issued by PRMD. In theory, a CUP is discretionary, subject to determinations and conditions. Applicants pay significant fees and agree to project-specific Conditions of Approval prior to a CUP being formalized and building permits being issued. Conditions must be followed, and if they’re violated, enforcement will follow, or so we are led to believe. Persistent violations can result in fines, or in rare cases, revocation. Even so, Kenwood residents came to believe that when VJB exceeded its conditions, PRMD acquiesced or looked the other way.
As an example, under its original permission nearly a decade ago, VJB would be allowed to host special events only after Highway 12 was widened to accommodate a center left-turn lane for safe turning movements at Shaw and Maple avenues. Neighbors had the impression that unless that turn lane was completed by a specific date, events at VJB would be strictly limited. Yet in the ongoing absence of a left-turn lane, many observed that VJB continued to expand and host events. Locals wondered, how did they manage to avoid compliance?
At the hearing, we learned that PRMD was aware of conflicts, yet chose not to pursue enforcement, leaving neighbors frustrated, while simultaneously giving VJB the impression that its activities were “authorized.”
PRMD’s Code Enforcement division is empowered to ensure that conditions are followed. However, unlike the Vehicle Code – which can be enforced whenever an officer observes an offense – violations of a CUP are, for the most part, investigated and enforced only after PRMD has received and verified a formal written complaint.
For years, officials have described PRMD as “complaint driven,” but neighbors are reluctant to file complaints for a variety of reasons. Many find the process intimidating or they’d prefer to avoid a dispute. As a result, one routinely hears advocates of controversial projects testify at public hearings that, “… no violations have been issued.”
At Valley of the Moon Alliance (VOTMA), we are seeking solutions as to how locals’ concerns can be addressed, and the current broken system mended. Should businesses be required to self-monitor, much as those of us with non-standard septic systems do? Should Code Enforcement act more like the Health Department, which does not wait for complaints to inspect restaurant kitchens or septic systems? Is Code Enforcement the best portal for investigating complaints about winery events? Can PRMD and our Supervisors be brought into the discussion for the benefit of all concerned?
Kenwood and the greater Valley of the Moon are at a crossroads. Based on the volume of tasting rooms, the valley has clearly become a darling of wine tourism. But can we coexist harmoniously with the wine and events juggernaut in the absence of robust Code Enforcement? Based on what we’ve witnessed thus far, the splendor of Sonoma Valley will be sustained only if citizens remain steadfastly involved, and Supervisors along with PRMD take responsibility for their side of the bargain.
The SVCAC’s unanimous vote to recommend denial of VJB’s recent application may signal that the tide is turning. We’ll see. In the coming months, VOTMA will continue to monitor compliance and resource issues throughout the Valley, in addition to the latest proposals from Kenwood Vineyards, the Resort at Sonoma Country Inn, and the Sonoma Developmental Center. We welcome your input, support and participation, and ask that you please stay tuned via our website, VOTMA.org, which includes background information and comments on important local issues.