Top Stories of 2015
Debate begins over wineries, eventsDiscussions over potential new rules on wineries and their activities kicked off in 2015, giving an indication of what is sure to be a heated and fractious debate next year.
The evolution of winery business plans to focus primarily on a direct-to-consumer model has prompted the industry to push county planners to allow more events, weddings, musical venues, and food service - methods to get more customers through the door and onsite.
The expansion of the type and amount of winery activities has caused some residents, community organizations, and environmental groups to cry foul, charging that the increased commercial activity, especially on agricultural lands, has led to increased traffic and negative environmental impacts on rural areas. Many wineries now more resemble event centers and restaurants, critics say.
The balancing of the lifeblood of the county's economic activity - wine and tourism - and the preservation of the rural nature of the county is sure to be tricky, as evidenced by the lack of progress this year from a county-created Winery Event Working Group. The panel, made up of farmer and wine industry representatives, residents, and community groups, agreed on few specifics after six months of discussion.
In November, county planners held an overflow public meeting to discuss possible new rules for wineries, including possible limits on tasting rooms, events, outdoor music, food service, and promotional activities. More monitoring and enforcement of rules regarding events is also on the table.
A package of proposals will go first to the county's Planning Commission next year, and then this hot potato will be thrown into the laps of the Board of Supervisors.
Sonoma Developmental Center set to close by 2018*The handwriting on the wall for the Sonoma Developmental Center became crystal clear this year for even the most die-hard of supporters: it will be closed - and within a few years. While the exact date, now 2018, may not be set in stone, the state and federal agencies responsible for operating the facility are in lockstep to close out operations as soon as possible and move the remaining 400 or so residents to community settings other than the Center's current site.
A federal policy of deinstitutionalizing developmentally disabled - and other classes of subsidized citizens - resulted in the promise to withdraw vital federal funding for caregiving at the Sonoma center if residents are not parceled out to privately operated care centers located in neighborhoods throughout the state.
In March, a legislative analyst called for closing the center, citing the $500,000 per patient annual cost of operations. At public hearings throughout the year, supporters pleaded with authorities to keep the center open, but by the end of the year it was clear that the process was not going to be democratic. In May, Gov. Brown called for a two-year closing plan to be presented to the Legislature no later than Oct. 1. The plan was submitted as expected and clearly calls for closure by 2018, although there is some wiggle room to extend the closure if suitable housing for the current residents can't be built or found.
An existing temporary facility for people with behavior issues may remain for some years and other options will be considered as the shutdown process continues over the next two years.
*The printed version of this story inaccurately states the closure year as 2017.
New ballgame for vacation rentalsSonoma County started regulating vacation rentals in 2011. Since then over 1,000 vacation rental zoning permits have been issued, the vast majority of which are in tourist-popular Sonoma Valley and west county. Along with the proliferation of rentals, both legal and illegal, came complaints from county residents about vacation rentals' impacts on residential communities - noise, traffic, frequent parties, etc.
Over a year ago, county officials concluded that the original vacation rental ordinance seemed to be working well overall, but decided to try and make the regulations more effective and come up with ways to bring the numerous illegal rentals into compliance. Also of interest to the county's Board of Supervisors is the capturing of lucrative bed tax money (Transient Occupancy Tax).
After a year of public meetings and workshops, substantial changes to the ordinance are in the works. The Planning Commission agreed to recommend a number of revisions, despite pleas from vacation rental owners and managers that the changes are unnecessary, are too restrictive, and would just encourage owners to not bother getting a permit. Among the potential tweaks are a ban on new rentals in some residential zones. The amended ordinance would also allow for a process to impose potential “Vacation Rental Exclusion” zones in neighborhoods determined to have an overconcentration of rentals.
Code enforcement would be beefed up, including increased financial penalties for code violations and illegal rentals, and a “three-strikes” rule whereby a vacation rental permit could be revoked if there are three or more verified rule violations.
The issue goes in front of the Board of Supervisors early next year.
Venerable local wineries snatched upSuccess in the wine business can take several forms, but most spectacular is when a local concern is bought out by a bigger concern, leaving the original owners pretty well off and looking forward to extended vacations after years of backbreaking work.
While the transfer was more of a year-long morph than a sale, Chuck Easley turned Rich Kasmier's “Kaz” winery into La Rochelle in March, bringing his culinary and viticultural acumen to bear on the often humorous and whimsical Kaz labels. The two men shared a common off-the-wall humor and approach to life that led them to love making wine. In Easley's case, the wines are primarily Pinot Noir and Chardonnay, but also some Pinot Meunier and sparkling wine.
The first happy victim of conglomerate acquisitiveness this year was Benziger Family Winery. Senior partner Mike Benziger announced last June the sale of the long-time family business to Livermore-based The Wine Group (TWG), one of California's largest wine conglomerates, which bought the Benziger's earlier label, Glen Ellen brand, back in 2002. It turns out that the principals of both privately held companies had long ties reaching back many years and miles to New York. No price was announced for the sale.
Bruce Cohn sold his 67-acre BR Cohn Winery near Madrone Road to Santa Rosa-based Vintage Wine Estates for an undisclosed price in late July. Cohn said that he would have preferred to keep the iconic business after 41 years, but that his bankers refused to extend his $25 million in loans any longer. He will, however, continue to grow grapes on his personal estate and will continue to do what he loves most in life - promoting music with one or two annual concerts which raise millions for veterans and other local charities.
Familiar faces in supervisor electionSo far, the field contesting the First District Supervisor seat in 2016 is a whole lot smaller than in the last election. The candidates are incumbent Susan Gorin and down-Valley challenger Gina Cuclis, who came in third in the 2012 crowded ballot. In 2012, six people entered the race to replace four-term retiring Valerie Brown.
The First District's population is split between the City of Santa Rosa and the southern unincorporated area and the much smaller City of Sonoma, though the First District supervisor has traditionally lived in Sonoma Valley.
In 2012, however, Santa Rosa city council members Susan Gorin and John Sawyer took top spots in the six-way June primary, leaving Springs resident Gina Cuclis third, ahead of the remaining three hopefuls. California law awards the runoff spots to the highest voted two candidates, and Gorin emerged from that battle a clear winner.
Cuclis, encouraged by her proven ability to garner votes, feels that she is on much sounder footing to take on Gorin in 2016, without having to split her valley supporters among a group of talented and capable candidates.
Gorin kicked off her campaign fundraising in mid-summer, while Cuclis made it official in November. Both expect the election to cost up to $250,000 and have jumped in far ahead of the March, 2016, filing deadline for prospective candidates. The June 2016 primary may settle the issue if one candidate takes more than 50 percent of the vote. Otherwise, there will be another ballot next November.
Rocky roads top county's to-do listA vocal group of road repair enthusiasts continue to push Sonoma County's supervisors to put more money into bringing what are arguably the Bay Area's worst streets and highways up to passable conditions, even after the spectacular failure of a special tax measure last June. SOS Roads, a popular advocacy group whose founders live on the worst road in the county, vow to continue pushing for more money to be invested to improve the county's 1,370-mile, $1.7 billion road infrastructure. A 2007 analysis said the entire system could fall apart in 10 years if something wasn't done.
The extra county money tossed into the potholes so far doesn't come close to the estimated $620 million needed to fix the entire road system. Measure A would have brought in approximately $100 million over five years. Voters mistrusted the supervisors to spend a general tax, which needed only 50 percent plus one vote to pass. By law, general tax revenues can be spent for any general purposes. A special tax would have required a two-thirds voter approval. The tax measure failed with only 34 percent voter support.
Supervisors found an additional $13 million for next year's maintenance during October budget reviews, but told road repair supporters that there's a lot of competition for county dollars.
Supervisor Efren Carrillo said that when it comes to a choice between fixing back country roads for large landowners who won't pony up for their own special tax districts, or funding preschool programs for heavily populated areas in his district, the choice won't be too hard to make.
Fridays turn funky for SugarloafMore than 200 people expecting to hear the band 10 Foot Tone at Sugarloaf on July 24 were unexpectedly turned away, as the promoters first learned of an administrative snafu in permission papers that prompted State Park authorities to curtail the popular summer fundraiser. Nobody was more surprised than promoters Bill Myers and Linda Pavlak, who have raised tens of thousands of dollars for Team Sugarloaf management through their Funky Friday concerts over the past three years.
State park administrators evidently couldn't stray from the cumbersome process of requiring a Project Evaluation Form (PEF) that can take months, if not years, to wend through the state park bureaucracy as well as a number of other agencies automatically involved with a California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) review that is often imposed on even minor proposals.
Myers and Pavlak have no idea when the parks administration might approve raising attendance from 125 to the requested 400 people, but they do know that 125 is not going to pay the bills. They also need to start booking acts for next year, but can't without knowing if they will be able to sell enough tickets to cover costs and make the undertaking worthwhile. All the money raised by the concerts goes to park operations.
Team Sugarloaf submitted their PEF in mid-November, and it could take another four to eight months to be approved in Sacramento.
Meanwhile, offers continue to come in to host Funky Fridays elsewhere. It's going to be a close call whether the event will continue at Sugarloaf.
Independent park operators get extended lifeWhen California legislators originally avoided closing some parks in 2011 by allowing them to be operated by independent groups, they built in a sunset clause that would have returned operations to state administrators in 2019. Team Sugarloaf, Jack London Park Partners, and Stewards of the Coast and Redwoods have run their respective parks, raising enough money to sustain operations and increasing park attendance, along with funding and building improvements and needed maintenance.
Tjiska van Wyck said that long term planning is necessary to effectively raise money and undertake major projects. Van Wyck is executive director of Jack London Park Partners, which sponsors the very successful Broadway Under the Stars concerts that have raised tens of thousands of dollars over the past four years and have more than doubled park attendance and outreach.
Recognizing the value and need for independent operators going forward, the legislature passed a bill effectively removing the cutoff date, allowing independent operations to continue as long as state parks find them useful. Gov. Brown signed the bill on Oct. 7.
Besides removing the 2019 sunset date, the bill calls for the operators to host an annual public meeting and publish an annual report. The new legislation also seeks to speed up park administrative processing without being specific.
“I think that with their diminishing resources [State Parks] are going to have to be open to all kinds of partnerships,” van Wyck told the Kenwood Press in October. “This legislation acknowledges that.”
Dog days at Shaw Park?Efforts by a group of Kenwoodians have been underway to develop a pilot program to allow dogs off leash during certain hours of the day at Shaw Park in Kenwood, though it has run into opposition from some community members concerned about this kind of use.
In a nutshell, dogs would be able to be off-leash legally during certain hours of the morning and afternoon, with the park's main use still being as an athletic field. Some kind of fence would need to be put around the children's play area, and rules would be posted listing things like hours, designation of off-leash area, dog behavior, clean-up, etc. The process has involved public meetings, a survey, and petitions from those supporting the project and those opposed. Those who don't think the off-leash dog area is a good idea cite potential safety issues with off-leash dogs with people and children at the park at the same time, destruction of the athletic field by dog digging, traffic issues, and the move away from the historical community uses of Shaw Park.
Supporters counter that the off-leash hours won't conflict with the traffic generated by local businesses, that the impact on Shaw Park is actually very minimal and the park's primary uses remain the same, and a group of Kenwood dog owners will volunteer to maintain the park and make sure the off-leash rules are being followed by dog owners. Anyone who has their dog off its leash outside of posted off-leash hours would be subject to a citation by county park rangers.
At the moment, the pilot program would begin in the spring for a three-month period, after which county parks officials would do an evaluation and get feedback from the community.
Deerfield declares bankruptcy, now reorganizingThe year started out on a bad note for Deerfield Ranch Winery due to a long-running fight with its main creditor, Rabobank over an $11 million-plus debt. The 30,000 case, 22-employee Kenwood winery was placed under court-ordered receivership in February, and then declared Chapter 11 bankruptcy in order to avoid foreclosure, keep the doors open, and prevent the bank from selling the winery. Chapter 11 allowed the winery and its main partners, Robert and PJ Rex, some breathing room to come up with a reorganization plan to repay its creditors.
It appears that Deerfield is close to achieving that goal, as a bankruptcy judge in Santa Rosa is set to consider confirming the reorganization plan on Dec. 18. In general, the proposal, developed after months of negotiations with Rabobank, allows a restructuring of the bank debt for a five-year period, setting up monthly interest payments as well as yearly principal payment that increase over time. It also sets out a timetable to pay off other debts, such as $755,000 to Sonoma County for unpaid property taxes. Any outstanding balance must be paid to Rabobank in its entirety by the end of 2020.
The reorganization plan, if approved, will allow Deerfield more time to seek other institutional funding as well as other potential investors. Currently, Deerfield Ranch Winery LLC is comprised of about 90 partners, representing close to $16 million in investment.
Meanwhile it's business as usual for the winery and its staff, with public tasting every day and continued services for its custom crush clients. Deerfield first opened its tasting room in 2008.
Fire services reorganization moves aheadFire fighting services are among the oldest public services anywhere, with Sonoma County's earliest recorded companies showing up in the mid-1800s. Always intensely personal and local, it is no surprise that the existing network of county, city and rural fire fighting companies, using both volunteer and paid personnel, have a wide assortment of rules, operating procedures, funding mechanisms and ways of doing business that beg to be better systematized to make it through a thicket of increasing costs, rules, regulations, and high tech additions to the fire-fighting arsenal.
After 18 months, a 70-person advisory committee has finally agreed to an incremental step toward concentrating administration, financing and operations by forming its existing independent fire districts into seven regional districts and funding a special inquiry into the best way to deal with the 11 dependent volunteer fire districts scattered county-wide. They depend on direct subsidies from the county, as well as pay-per-call subsidies. As a group, these latter companies have been wary of being subsumed by larger, better funded districts, fearing a loss of local identity and potentially losing some of their tax bases.
The proposed regional system is not the county-preferred single organization, but will keep the various and sometimes conflicted departments moving forward for now and resolve some funding issues, at least until next year.
The major problems today are recruiting and keeping new fire personnel, finding enough money to pay for increased training requirements, and funding the exponentially more expensive high-tech fire equipment.
New church in Kenwood gets raided, sues countyThe Oklevueha Native American Church (ONAC) set up a branch on Lawndale Road in Kenwood earlier this year, sparking the curiosity of neighbors about the Utah-based group, which makes use of plants such as cannabis and peyote in its religious ceremonies, practices which members say are legally protected.
The ONAC, which has over 200 branches, has had run-ins with local governmental entities in other states over what the ONAC says is its constitutional right to practice its religion. The Kenwood branch is no exception, as the ONAC Valley of the Moon first came under scrutiny of the county's Permit and Resource Management Department, which said the ONAC needed a use permit to run a place of religious worship, or it must shut down.
Then, in September, sheriff's deputies conducted a morning raid on the Lawndale Road property, seizing over 600 marijuana plants and destroying them. Sheriffs also arrested at the site the president of the ONAC Valley of the Moon Branch for illegal marijuana cultivation and possession of marijuana for sale.
On Nov. 23, the ONAC went to federal court in San Francisco and filed a lawsuit against Sonoma County and the Sheriff's Department, charging civil rights violations.
The ONAC Valley of the Moon has fewer than ten members. Anyone can belong to ONAC regardless of race. The ONAC is a different organization than the Native American Church of North America, which only uses peyote in its ceremonies, and not cannabis or other substances.