The Kenwood Press
News: 05/01/2017

SVCAC won’t support VJB permit changes

Alec Peters

The Sonoma Valley Citizens Advisory Commission (SVCAC) did not look favorably on a request by VJB Vineyards & Cellars to modify its use permit at the SVCAC’s April 26 meeting.

The advisory panel unanimously recommended that county officials not approve the modification request, stating in its motion that current food service, the parking situation, and hours of operation are exceeding the parameters of its original use permit.

In addition, the SVCAC’ s motion also stated that the impact of a proposed 53-space Shaw Avenue parking lot on traffic and parking in the area needs to be analyzed further. In particular, the commission wants a new traffic study to take the parking lot into consideration, as well as the request that a left turn lane be installed on Sonoma Highway into Shaw Avenue.

“We were disappointed, but not surprised by the decision,” said Steve Butler, attorney for VJB and its owners, the Belmonte family.

During the meeting, Butler and Henry Belmonte took issue with the argument that VJB was not abiding by its use permit and its associated conditions of approval. Butler pointed out that VJB has never received a notice of a permit violation from PRMD, and that all the current uses on the property have been signed off on by the county at some point.

Blake Hillegas, the planner for the county’s Permit and Resource Management Department (PRMD) assigned to the VJB project, was on hand to give his take on the situation.

Hillegas said he felt that there are inconsistencies between VJB’s operations and what was originally approved, such as the level of food service and a number of traffic and parking related issues.

“We chose not to enforce through the enforcement process,” said Hillegas, instead choosing to try and work problems out with VJB through a use permit modification process.

That use permit modification process has been going on for a number of years, with different proposals being filed but never fully completed or decided on.

SVCAC commissioners were clearly frustrated at the length of time it has taken for the county to deal with VJB’s permit issues.

“You’ve kicked the proverbial can down the road way too long,” said commissioner Sean Bellach to PRMD's Hillegas.

Parking issues have been a major issue for VJB and the surrounding neighborhood. Ever since its opening in 2012, VJB has become a popular destination, drawing visitors and vehicle traffic to the area of Sonoma Highway and Shaw Avenue. Two other tasting rooms and Café Citti are just yards from the VJB complex.

Overflow traffic from its on-site parking lot, including tour buses and limousines, can end up on residential streets, causing continuing consternation among some neighbors.

At the SVCAC meeting, Butler said that VJB has “bent over backwards” to find a solution to the traffic issue, with the latest proposal being to put in a 53-space parking lot at 75 Shaw Avenue across from VJB’s entrance. The parcel is zoned for commercial use.

At first, Butler said the Belmontes bought a parcel on the corner of Clyde and Shaw avenues for the purpose of a parking lot, but zoning issues waylaid that option. They are now building a new single-family home on that parcel instead. Then the family looked at buying 75 Shaw Ave. but, according to Butler, the owner said he’d only sell if the Belmontes also bought his property next door, at 85 Shaw Ave., which they did.

Butler said the Belmontes have spent over $2.4 million trying to deal with the traffic concerns of PRMD and the neighbors.

Another traffic issue that has been outstanding is a debate over the installation of a left-turn lane on Sonoma Highway turning onto Shaw Avenue.

Originally, the left-turn lane was required to be built when VJB started having its approved 15 special events. Now, though, VJB said it will not do those events, thus negating the need for the left-turn lane. VJB also argues that pieces of neighboring properties would have to be acquired for rights of way, but that VJB has no authority to make that happen.

VJB said, at the suggestion of a PRMD official, it would be willing to expand the shoulder in that area to allow cars to go around those taking a left turn. But Hillegas said that CalTrans has nixed that idea.

The April 26 meeting was attended by about 15 members of the public. Those who expressed concerns about VJB’s operations and its current application, said, in part, that the business has grown too big for the area, the road situation will continue to be unsafe even with a new parking lot, food service has grown to where VJB is more of a restaurant than a tasting room, and that a left-turn lane is still warranted and should be installed.

Supporters of VJB praised the Belmonte family and their contributions to the community, and encouraged the county to allow the new parking lot.

VJB’s use permit modification request will be heard by the county’s Board of Zoning Adjustments this summer. If that decision is appealed, the matter would then go to the Board of Supervisors.