The Kenwood Press
News: 08/15/2017

Sonoma Country Inn moves forward

VOTMA plans to appeal decision to Board of Supervisors

Jay Gamel

The luxury resort to be built near Hood Mountain’s iconic Gunsight Rock has moved one step closer to construction, another incremental step in a 15-year-long battle with local residents, and a tanked economy that kept the project on hold for years.

On Aug. 3, all five of Sonoma County’s Planning Commissioners agreed with the county’s Design Review Committee’s (DRC) decision last fall that the revised resort design for Sonoma Country Inn (the resort) by current owner Tohigh Investment Properties, LLC, is not a significant departure from the original plans. The Valley of the Moon Alliance (VOTMA), formed to battle the original developer, has vowed to appeal once more to the Board of Supervisors to reconsider the project, at least as currently designed.

VOTMA appealed the earlier DRC decision on Oct. 31, 2016, citing concerns about traffic, lighting, water use, and habitat impacts on the existing tree population. The final day to submit its appeal to the Board of Supervisors is Monday, Aug. 14.

“I like to think we are trying to reduce the impacts as much as we can,” VOTMA president Kathy Pons said about deciding to appeal the decision once again.

More than 13 years since the project’s Environmental Impact Analysis was completed, some people have asked why, after such a long delay, the impacts aren’t revisited for the sprawling project to be built across from Lawndale Road.

There are three phases of the development: the resort, restaurant and spa; a 10,000-case winery, tasting room, and retail store; and, lastly, 11 home sites. The design of the first phase is the subject of the appeal.

The planning commissioners and planning department staff made it clear from the outset of the Aug. 3 appeal hearing in Santa Rosa that they were looking at a very narrow basis for making a decision on this appeal, since the use permit is completely “vested,” a move that preserved the right to build the project because the original owner made expensive improvements, such as installing a road, removing trees, building a left-turn lane off Highway 12, and installing a major underground electrical distribution system for all the buildings entailed in the project.

All of the commissioners said they had been given tours of the site by the new owners and felt they understood the design changes that were being proposed.

“At no time did they pressure me about the project,” First District Commissioner Dick Fogg said.

All five commissioners emphatically noted that the new designs by architect Tom Spoja, of San Francisco’s noted Backen Gillam Kroeger architects, did not “significantly” differ from the prior plans, and several said, if anything, the new designs lessened the resort’s impact.

The county planning department described the first phase: “The inn consists of 50 guest rooms located in 17 guest cottages and the main building includes a restaurant, retail shop, administrative offices, support services and swimming pool. The approved spa has gym facilities, retail space, treatment cottages and several hot tubs and pools for guest and public use. The restaurant in the main inn building is approved for guest and public use from 6 a.m. to midnight seven days a week, open to the public for breakfast, lunch and dinner. All uses have associated parking.”

The new design differed from the old in several ways. The main building size was reduced from 29,000 square feet to 17,000 square feet, with some space being added to an ancillary support building. The main building, which houses the resort reception area, restaurant and bar, has been terraced to reduce view impact and given a new, flat roof planted with trees and a garden. Most of the outdoor seating for 50 was shifted to the roof garden, the swimming pool (for guests only) is now an infinity pool and bigger by 400 square feet. The spa pool was enlarged by 50 square feet. Both the spa pools and hot tubs were moved back.

The space allotted for parking is 27,000 square feet smaller than before, with most of the parking for the 17 cottages (down from 19) moved to an area behind the main building. But the main parking area for the restaurant and spa has been expanded. This set off speculation that Tohigh intends to increase the day use of the restaurant and bar far beyond what the EIR’s traffic counts indicated.

The new designs reduce the number of trees to be removed by 17 percent, although resort consultant James MacNair pointed out that conditions beyond anyone’s control are affecting trees in the Mayacamas region. He called for careful attention to be paid by the county and builder concerning replanting and tree removal, focusing on keeping healthy trees intact, removing diseased vegetation, and not encouraging overgrowth.

VOTMA contends that too much time has elapsed since the original EIR evaluations were made and that the increase in traffic, tourism, drought years, overconcentration of events and other issues have severely impacted the landscape.

“They say 2004 was adequate; we say otherwise,” VOTMA director Roger Peters said of the Planning Commissioner’s opinion of that EIR.

“We’re trying to make sure that the county, when it looks at a decision made today, has looked at the changed circumstances in the environment that would change the design they are looking at. We are hopeful that the Board of Supervisors will do with what the DRC and PC has not done – take a look at the issues we have raised.”

Consultant Rob Muelrath, speaking for the resort owners, said that another appeal will effectively delay the onset of building to next year. Pointing out the upside of the long delay, he noted that, “anytime you have the ability to redesign something that reduces impact to the project and the community, I think it’s always better.

“We have made some great reductions of environmental impact that we are able to do because of the reconfiguration of a few things.”