The Kenwood Press
News: 09/01/2017

VOTMA appeals resort decision to Board of Supervisors

Jay Gamel

The Valley of the Moon Alliance (VOTMA) formally appealed the 5-0 decision by the county Planning Commission to allow the Resort at Sonoma Country Inn to begin construction in Kenwood. The Board of Supervisors will be the last stop in the process unless the local group decides to go to court.

A meeting after the Planning Commission decision, between resort developer Tohigh Investments, LLC and the VOTMA board, was not productive.

Expressing some frustration with yet another delay, Tohigh spokesman Rob Muelrath said he felt that the community is being denied substantial benefits and the county is losing a lot of revenue by the continued delays.

“I think there are some good things [VOTMA] can do; but they say ‘no’ to every single project,” Muelrath said. “That limits their effectiveness. They have to have solutions. Right now they are a NIMBY organization, and that’s all they are.”

Muelrath pointed out that VOTMA was still trying to fight the original battle, which was settled back in 2004 when the project’s use permit was fully vested, protecting it from further review. VOTMA has argued that underlying conditions have changed enough over the 13-year delay to warrant re-examining the basic approval.

That argument has been unanimously rejected by the county’s Design Review Committee and the Planning Commission, and there’s no reason to expect any different result from the Board of Supervisors.

“We are not a normal project,” Muelrath noted. “We’re already approved. VOTMA lost every single time.”

Tohigh is willing to discuss design issues – hours of operation for the restaurant and bar, location and size of pools, etc.

“[Planning Commissioner] Dick Fogg made suggestions about the rooftop bar hours,” Muelrath said. “We will consider those things.

“We are willing to talk to them in good faith; give us what you want to talk about and we will consider reducing hours on rooftop, reconfigure some pools, whatever makes sense to them.”

Kathy Pons, president of VOTMA, was nonplussed.

“We didn’t have an agenda going into that Friday meeting,” Pons said. “We just sat down to chat. If they expected something and didn’t get it, it wasn’t expressed to us. We are willing to meet and negotiate with them on some things.”

As far as being a NIMBY organization, she said, “You can put labels on whatever group of people, but we feel like we’re doing a service to the community and we hope it is a service to the community.”

The revenue the project will bring to the county was specifically cited in the original decision by the Board of Supervisors who approved the project in spite of the fact that there are environmental impacts that cannot be mitigated. The 2004 statement of Overriding Considerations specifically pointed to the economic benefits the project would bring.

Today’s property tax on the undeveloped property is about $180,000 a year, Muelrath noted. That will rise substantially after the new units are constructed.

Moreover, the county stands to gain millions from its Transient Occupancy Tax on hotel rooms, recently raised from nine to 12 percent.

After updating 2004 projections that were based on the nine percent rate, Muelrath said the county stands to take in almost a million dollars a year, projecting $5.9 million over a five-year period, and $20 million over the next 10 years.

One-time fees will also bring in substantial funds for the county.

The project will generate workforce housing and affordable housing fees ranging from $2.64 per square foot for the commercial hotel to $7.57 per square foot for the residences built. Altogether, the hotel, residence and winery fees are expected to be $731,000.

The luxury 50-room hotel, spa, restaurant, and bar will sit 300 feet above the valley floor on Campagna Lane, across from Lawndale Road, and will be the first phase of a project that will eventually build out a 10,000-case winery, store, and 11 large home lots.

The project aroused considerable local opposition when first proposed in 2000, resulting in the formation of VOTMA. By 2004, a state appeals court had rejected VOTMA’s challenges to the Environmental Impact Review and county approval, and the project was issued a use permit. The development languished for 13 years, through recession and eventually a change of ownership in 2015, when San Francisco-based Tohigh Investments, LLC, bought it for $41 million.

Tohigh is a subsidiary of worldwide conglomerate Oceanwide Holdings Co. Ltd., based in Beijing.

The initial hotel and spa plans were redesigned by St. Helena-based Backen Gillam & Kroger Architects to lower the visual impact and reduce the number of trees being removed.