Sonoma Country Inn gets final design approval
Way back in 2004, a major resort development was approved by the county in Kenwood, the Sonoma Country Inn. Fast forward to 2018, and it appears a developer is closer to putting a shovel in the ground than ever before.
A final design OK was given by the Board of Supervisors on March 27 to a large portion of the project – a 50-room inn made up of a main building and separate cottages, spa, restaurant, and 102 parking spaces, all located on a plateau area of a 52-acre parcel off of Sonoma Hwy. across from Lawndale Road.
The property, owned by Tohigh Investments, part of Chinese conglomerate Oceanwide Holdings, also has approval to build a 10,000-case winery and 11 home sites, but those components were not part of the current design discussion and are planned to be built in the future.
Tohigh bought the property (part of the former Graywood Ranch) at the end of 2014.
Local community group the Valley of the Moon Alliance (VOTMA), which unsuccessfully sued over the county’s original approval of the project and Environmental Impact Report (EIR) 14 years ago, had challenged the county’s final planning stage before anything can be constructed, the actual detailed design of the inn and its features.
VOTMA has argued that changes by the developer to the plans that were originally approved years ago warranted taking another look at some of the 2018 environmental impacts of the project, notably traffic, water, visual issues, and greenhouse gases.
The county’s Design Review Committee disagreed, and approved the design changes in 2016. VOTMA appealed to the Planning Commission, which also came down on the side of the developer. VOTMA appealed to the Board of Supervisors. By a 4-0 vote, the board denied the appeal.
Rob Muelrath, a spokesman for Tohigh, said the developer is eager to get going.
“We don’t want to wait,” said Muelrath, “we would love nothing more than to start pulling building permits.”
VOTMA board of directors member Roger Peters said their entire board hasn’t had a chance to sit down together, analyze the supervisors’ conclusions, and discuss whether or not to continue any challenge, which at this point would involve going to court.
VOTMA did not go away from the hearing empty-handed though. With the help of First District Supervisor Susan Gorin, there were modifications to the project’s conditions of approval, some prompted by a shift in most of the outdoor dining seating to a roof garden.
At the hearing, Gorin said that while the developer had demonstrated a number of ways the project has improved, “I think the question is will there be impacts from the change in the design, so I’m going to really focus on the rooftop terrace because that is a significant change.”
To address the potential noise and lighting impacts, it was agreed that the restaurant, open to the public from 6 a.m. until midnight, will close outdoor seating areas such as the terrace at 10 p.m. or 10:30 p.m. depending on daylight savings time. It was agreed at the supervisors meeting that outdoor lighting on the rooftop terrace will be turned off within a hour of closing the outdoor seating area.
In addition, events with amplified music are now prohibited in the outdoor restaurant and bar areas, with “quiet” instruments and background music allowed outdoors before 10 p.m.
VOTMA was concerned about parking over and above the approved 102 spaces that will be constructed. A condition was added stating that any overflow will be handled by a valet service, or cars would be allowed to park on the adjacent winery parcel. Prohibited is any roadside parking within or outside of the inn site, and no overflow parking is allowed in Kenwood village.
“The project will have an impact,” said VOTMA president Kathy Pons after the hearing. “We felt the conditions added will help lessen the impacts. Tohigh Investments made a helpful gesture toward community sensitivity.”
More details were also added regarding fire protection and emergency fire procedures as well.
At the March 27 meeting, the board of supervisors agreed with staff recommendations to deny VOTMA’s appeal. They concluded that change to the original design “substantially conforms” to the original 2004 approval, and that the changes actually reduce the impacts of the inn.
Post-fire impacts on vegetation were discussed. The October fires burned portions of some of the future residential sites, but areas for the proposed restaurant, spa and inn were not affected, as were trees behind the inn and vegetation between the inn and Sonoma Highway. A report from a geotechnical consultant determined that there was insignificant risk of debris flow issues from fire damage.
A major issue VOTMA pushed had to do with the resort’s impact on greenhouse gases and their relationship to climate change, a topic the group argued required further environmental study. The board agreed with county staff that no further analysis was required, and that, in any event, emissions are at a level that complies with standards set by the Bay Area Air Quality Management District. VOTMA’s separate analysis concluded that emissions were in excess of the standards.