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News: 08/01/2015

Settlement requires EIR for Sonoma Mountain Road project

Last November, a group of neighbors sued the county over its approval of a controversial winery and creamery on Sonoma Mountain Road, charging inadequate environmental review.

But a recent settlement of the case has changed things, with the county agreeing to rescind its previous approval of the Belden Barns project and conduct a full Environmental Impact Report (EIR).

The settlement is the latest turn for the Belden family in their efforts to establish a wine and cheese making facility at 5561 Sonoma Mountain Road.

The project approved by the Board of Supervisors in October of 2014 allowed a 10,000 case winery, a creamery that could produce 10,000 pounds of cheese a year, retail sales, tasting by appointment only, and up to 10 agricultural promotional events a year.

First District Supervisor Susan Gorin was the lone dissenting vote, echoing concerns of many of the neighbors over the compatibility of the project with the rural residential area, and the impact on Sonoma Mountain Road, which in many places is windy, narrow, and in disrepair. Gorin and opposing neighbors also objected to the number of events.

Opponents also expressed fear at the possible precedent-setting nature of approving an open to the public winery on Sonoma Mountain Road, which would be the first of its kind on the 7.5-mile roadway.

A month after the board’s approval, neighbors, as the Friends of Sonoma Mountain Road, filed a lawsuit, claiming that the county failed to properly evaluate the project’s environmental impacts, including potential effects on groundwater, traffic, and noise. The suit asked the court to require that a full EIR be conducted.

Working with Sonoma County Superior Court Judge Eliot Daum, the parties entered into a settlement agreement in June requiring that a full EIR be performed, a lengthy process to be paid for by the Beldens. An EIR, which is performed by an outside consultant selected by the county, can cost up to $100,000.

The settlement dismisses the lawsuit "with prejudice", a legal term barring the plaintiffs from suing again on the same claims. The settlement also sets aside the Board of Supervisors’ prior approval, and allows the Beldens to submit a new application for the same or a revised project. Any revisions cannot increase the wine and cheese production, tasting room activity, or number of events beyond what was asked for in the initial project. In addition, the settlement states that the EIR will evaluate an alternative to the project that includes no tasting room.

The settlement also allows the Board of Supervisors to take “original jurisdiction,” a move aimed at speeding up the planning process. According to the settlement terms, the county agreed, “to take the utmost effort to hold a public hearing to consider the project and EIR by June 23, 2016.”

Amy Rodney, a neighbor and member of the Friends of Sonoma Mountain Road, said she was happy at the recent turn of events.

“We are pleased that what we have been asking for all along has been accomplished: a more complete and accurate analysis of the impacts of this project on the environment, as well as consideration of viable alternatives to the project, including off-site tasting,” said Rodney, who has lived on Sonoma Mt. Road for over 30 years. “It is unfortunate that it took a lawsuit to accomplish this goal.”

Nate Belden of Belden Barns said he’s ready to move forward to the next stage.

“We respect the process and look forward to continuing to work with our neighbors and community in order to implement the settlement agreement,” said Belden. “We remain excited about our project, which we think can be a unique model for truly integrated, small-scale, sustainable farming in Sonoma.”

Nate Belden owns Belden Barns with his wife, Laura. They bought the 55-acre property in 2005, which has about 20 acres of vineyards, formerly known as Steiner Vineyard.

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