Twelve years may make a difference
SVCAC gives thumbs down to new Kenwood resort plans
Sonoma Country Inn
Tohigh Investments may have purchased a perfectly good use permit to build a large resort complex on the side of Hood Mountain, but the 12-year delay in starting the project may have seriously eroded the validity of assumptions and findings of the underlying Environmental Impact Report (EIR). So concluded the Sonoma Valley Citizens Advisory Commission (SVCAC) when unanimously turning down a request to recommend approval of new designs for the hotel and spa portion of the project.
The SVCAC reviews development projects in Sonoma Valley and makes recommendations to the appropriate Sonoma County or City of Sonoma Planning officials.
While admiring the pains the developer has taken to produce a well-designed and beautiful resort, the project’s scale still rattles sensibilities of almost everyone in the area.
The project will include a 50-room luxury hotel, 10,000-case winery and 16 single-family homes, stretching from the valley floor adjacent to Sonoma Highway up to the hilltop overlooking the Sonoma Valley on Campagna Lane.
This design review is about the inn, spa and restaurant.
“To be fair, this applicant has done everything they were supposed to do,” SVCAC Chair Angela White concluded. “But 12 years is a long time. Events change. The scale is overwhelming for Kenwood, a sweet, quaint little town that is being overwhelmed by tourism. This project is a turning point for the valley.”
Sonoma County Planning Commissioner Gregg Carr named more specific issues with the new designs. Carr is an advisory member to the SVCAC.
“I am concerned that this project is not in compliance with the permit. In addition, I question whether it meets Mayacamas Design Guidelines visibility standards. It is still quite visible from Highway 12 or Adobe Canyon Road.
“That’s understandable, they want the views. But the project has to meet the test of ‘substantially screened.’ They need to clarify the events, restaurant and hours. These are not clear tonight.”
Since the project was approved in 2004 county adopted local area development guidelines that specifically target siting requirements in the Mayacamas mountains, including the resort site. The relevant section requires that projects, “to the extent feasible, be located to be substantially screened when viewed from public roads. The term ‘viewed’ shall mean what is visible to a person of normal eyesight from public roads.” Design standards, traffic impacts and water issues are the most dramatic changes in the Sonoma Valley.
Traffic on Highway 12 today is also substantially different than what may have been envisioned when the EIR was done. “Projects like the Kenwood Winery and VJB use traffic studies that don’t take into account this resort, since it was never built,” Kathy Pons said. She is president of Valley of the Moon Alliance (VOTMA). She also noted that years of spending millions of dollars of hotel room taxes to promote tourism – a program that did not exist then – have also had a major impact.
Carr said later that since the developer identified several changes to the original plans, that even though they may feel those changes are minor and in compliance with the permit, they need to be reviewed by the county.
The Tohigh team that outlined the project said that all of the 50 rooms and the restaurant will enjoy varying levels of views of the valley.
Architectural project manager Tom Spoja said that slight changes made to building sites and positioning were made to preserve trees and increase vegetative screening. A large roofline was removed from the approximately 24,000-square-foot main building containing reception, admin offices, meeting rooms, retail, restaurant, lounge, garden terrace, kitchen and various service functions. It was replaced with a flat, terraced roof that will contain native plants and hedges instead of guardrails to soften the view impact.
The 19 guest buildings surround the main building.
The spa will be housed in a collection of small structures connected by covered, outdoor walkways totaling 6,247 square feet, with reception, men’s and women’s locker rooms, eight treatment cottages, gym, steam rooms, saunas, several pools and hot tubs.
San Francisco landscape architect Justin Winters noted that permeable pathways have been put into place for much of the pedestrian access throughout the complex, reducing the original amount of paving. He also said that only native plantings will be used throughout the project.
Several items of the new designs, including a tennis court, sculpture garden and a “wedding meadow” were dropped from the new plans after a meeting with the VOTMA board. These items were not part of the original proposal.
While often acknowledging the beauty of the designs being presented, everyone in attendance questioned the validity of proceeding with such a large project approved so long ago.
“The elephant in this room is a 12-year-old EIR,” Doris Solomon of El Verano said. “It needs to be looked at again.”
While Carr reminded everyone that EIRs necessarily examine potential future impacts of various elements, including traffic and water availability, “Nobody could predict the last 12 years in Kenwood. It needs to be looked at again,” Kenwood resident Barbara Slatkin said.
Specifically, increased traffic flows on Highway 12, the drought and its impact on neighbors’ wells, as well as new lighting and sound impacts, were all questioned by the audience and commissioners.
The inn is expected to have 55 employees at any given time, and the spa will have up to 23 employees, and the original EIR said parking “is shared with the inn” as is restaurant parking. A 124-space parking lot for the winery on the valley floor has already been built. Sixty of those spaces are allocated to employee parking. Inn and spa employees will be shuttled up to their buildings by some light electric vehicles, according to Spoja.
The restaurant will be open to the public for breakfast, lunch and dinner from 6 a.m. to midnight seven days a week. It seats 50 indoors and 75 outdoors. Several people questioned keeping the restaurant open so long when wineries typically must close down events by 10 p.m.
The presentation before the SVCAC was completely voluntary on Tohigh’s part. “We wanted to show the community what we are doing,” said project spokesman Rob Muelrath of Muelrath Public Affairs in Santa Rosa. A formal public hearing before the county’s Design Review Committee is scheduled for 1:30 p.m., Oct. 19 at the Permit Resource and Management Department at the county center in Santa Rosa.