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News: 08/01/2016

Kenwood luxury resort moves forward

Owners plan to reach out to the community to receive input

An architect’s rendering of the Sonoma Country Inn hotel as submitted to the county’s Permit Resource and Management Department for design review. The hotel includes 50 guest rooms spread across 19 cottages, a restaurant, pool, and 102 parking spaces.

It’s been 12 years since the county approved entitlements for a huge development project in Kenwood on the old Graywood Ranch property, and now it finally appears that a high-end luxury resort is on its way, sure to increase the allure of Kenwood as a tourist destination.

Tohigh Investment SF LLC, the owner of the 186-acre resort property off of Sonoma Hwy. on Campagna Lane across from Lawndale Road, recently filed a design review application and an initial construction plan for the hotel component of the resort, which would be sited part-way up a hillside. The hotel includes 50 guest rooms spread across 19 cottages, a restaurant, pool, and 102 parking spaces.

Also approved back in 2004 as part of the resort, but not dealt with in the current design review filing, is a 10,000-case winery with public tasting on the valley floor part of the property. The winery would be allowed up to 20 events a year. A country store for retail sales of local agricultural products was approved to be in a separate building or attached to the winery.

Another part of the 2004 approval was an entitlement to build 11 home sites. Tohigh has bought another five parcels near Campagna Lane, which they plan for home sites as well.

Tohigh bought the resort property, known as the Sonoma Country Inn at the very end of 2014 for close to $41 million.

When the Board of Supervisors approved the resort in 2004, it itemized more than 300 conditions that had to be followed in all components of the project, ranging from building specifications to protection of oak woodlands and other habitat.

In a press release sent in early July, Tohigh spokesman Rob Muelrath of Santa Rosa-based Muelrath Public Affairs, wrote that, “Tohigh intends to respect the vision and all the guidelines established by the county, and also intends to comply with all the conditions of approval. The owner is looking forward to working with community members and the County of Sonoma to advance our design plans and provide hotel guests, restaurant patrons and future residents with an experience that blends modern-day elegance with old-world, rustic charm.”

Muelrath wrote that resort owners will be reaching out to the community to receive input.

A public hearing conducted by the Permit and Resource Management Department’s (PRMD) Design Review Committee has not yet been scheduled, but is likely to be held this fall.

Tohigh has hired St. Helena-based Backen, Gillam & Kroger Architects for the hotel’s architectural design. The firm created the original design that was approved in 2004. The group has designed a number of high-end resorts and wineries, including Meadowood Resort and Solage Calistoga in the Napa Valley and Ram’s Gate Winery in Sonoma County.

Attempts to develop a resort on the former Graywood Ranch date all the way back to the 1980s when a plan for a hotel, winery, and home sites was approved in 1984 by the Board of Supervisors. The Gray family never built the development, but that 1984 decision rezoned a chunk of the Graywood Ranch to a Recreation and Visitor-Serving designation that paved the way for a future project.

In 2000, that part of the ranch was bought by a group of investors, led by the late Save Mart Supermarkets owner Bob Piccinini, for an estimated $7-$8 million.

In 2001, an application for the Sonoma Country Inn was filed requesting approval for a 50-room inn, 11 home sites, and a winery, prompting strong opposition from many in Sonoma Valley, including a newly formed community group, the Valley of the Moon Alliance (VOTMA).

Opponents argued that there were too many negative impacts on the environment and the community, and that at a minimum the project should be downsized. Supporters pointed out that the land was already zoned for the inn, and that the project would be an overall economic benefit to the Sonoma Valley and the county.

The Board of Supervisors approved the Sonoma Country Inn by a 4-0 vote, including an aye vote by then First District Supervisor Valerie Brown.

While also touting the potential tax windfall for the county, supervisors said other benefits included the fact that the plans included the protection of sensitive biotic areas, the establishment of a preservation zone along a creek, the dedication of a large open space easement, the development of a trail into Hood Mountain Regional Park, and that the lot sizes would be frozen, prohibiting any further subdivision potential.

VOTMA sued the county over the project’s approval, claiming violations of state environmental laws, but the county prevailed at both the trial court and appellate levels, with litigation ending in 2006.

The nationwide economic downturn and financial crisis starting in 2008 put the Sonoma Country Inn on hold.

Some of the infrastructure and mitigation work was completed, such as installing center and left turn lanes on Sonoma Highway at the intersections of Randolph Ave. and Lawndale Road. Roads were built on the property, and some utility work was done. Environmental protection work was completed, as well as the dedication of part of the property for open space.

The ownership eventually changed, leaving Save Mart’s Piccinini as the main investor, until Tohigh came along and shelled out $41 million at the end of 2014.

Representatives of VOTMA said they haven’t had an opportunity to review the design and building plans recently filed by Tohigh, but said they will be monitoring PRMD’s review process.

Tohigh is a subsidiary of Beijing-based mega-company Oceanwide Holdings Co. Ltd.

Oceanwide, like a number of other large Chinese companies, has been investing hundreds of millions of dollars in real estate overseas, notably in California.

Projects Oceanwide is involved in include building the second largest skyscraper in San Francisco at First and Mission, and Oceanwide Plaza in downtown Los Angles, a $1 billion project. Oceanwide has recently expanded its hospitality portfolio by closing a deal at the end of 2015 to build a luxury resort on the island of Oahu.

Oceanwide is also involved in a number of business sectors in China and elsewhere, including the financial, insurance, energy and media industries.

Oceanwide’s president, Lu Zhiqiang, is ranked number 298 on the Forbes Billionaires List with a wealth of $4.8 billion.

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