Settlement sets path for project on Sonoma Mtn. Road
A settlement over litigation involving a county-approved winery and cheese-making facility was set to be approved by the Board of Supervisors at its June 13 meeting.
The board had approved the Belden Barns project last November by a 4-1 vote, giving the go-ahead for a 10,000 case winery, 10,000 pound cheese making facility, retail sales, tasting by appointment, and up to eight events a year.
The lone dissenter was First District Supervisor Susan Gorin, who argued that the poor conditions of Sonoma Mountain Road should have made such a facility a no-go. The 7.5-mile road often makes lists of the worst roads in Sonoma County.
Belden Barns is a 55-acre property owned by Nate Belden and his family. It’s located at 5561 Sonoma Mountain Road, about 1.5 miles east of Pressley Road.
There has been passionate opposition and support ever since the project was filed with the county in 2012, with detractors arguing that the project is incompatible with the rest of the area, and Sonoma Mountain Road is in no condition to accommodate a commercial facility that will likely attract thousands of visitors each year.
Supporters have argued that the project is small, has minimal impacts, and is a good example of the kind of small-scale sustainable farming the county is trying to promote.
A neighborhood group, Friends of Sonoma Mountain Road, filed a lawsuit in Sonoma County Superior Court in December challenging the board’s November approval and certification of the project’s Environmental Impact Report (EIR), specifically the analysis of biological, traffic, hydrology, land use, and noise impacts.
After a number of discussions, the parties agreed to a formal settlement earlier this month, according to Friends of Sonoma Mountain Road representative Amy Rodney. The Board of Supervisors was expected to sign off on the settlement at its June 13 meeting, after press time.
The settlement and end of litigation will allow Belden Barns to go forward, and the parties agreed on a number of specific measures to further mitigate and monitor the winery and creamery operations.
Some of the terms have to do with additional monitoring and reports regarding wine and creamery waste. There are also new conditions limiting tasting room days and hours, and new requirements regarding making tasting appointments, and visitor record-keeping.
The settlement also establishes neighbor notification of the up to eight approved events, and terms involving event location and ending times.
Provisions about traffic are also part of the settlement, including measures such as signage to discourage visitors coming from the eastern side of Sonoma Mountain Road (i.e., where the route hits Warm Springs Road). Road conditions are particularly bad on that stretch.
Amy Rodney of Friends of Sonoma Mountain Road, said that the group was disappointed that the Board of Supervisors, except for Gorin, failed to, “seriously address the shortcomings in the Belden project and specifically in the EIR,” and failed to address the impacts of introducing commercial activity on Sonoma Mountain Road.
“Water and waste concerns, a significant increase in traffic, drinking and driving, and status as one of the worst roads in the county still, unquestionably, make Sonoma Mountain Road the wrong place for this project,” Rodney said.
Nate Belden said he was glad an agreement was reached. "We are happy to put this behind us and thank everyone involved for helping to bring this matter to closure."
This was not the first time Friends of Sonoma Mountain had gone to court on Belden Barns. The Board of Supervisors first approved the project in 2014, and the neighbor group promptly sued over what they argued was a lack of adequate environmental analysis. A settlement was reached in that case in the summer of 2015, which rescinded the board’s approval and required that a full EIR be conducted. That EIR was finalized last fall.
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