Last call for Hood Mountain
By Roger Peters, Valley of the Moon Alliance
On Thursday, Aug. 3, the Sonoma County Planning Commission will hold a hearing to address Valley of the Moon Alliance's (VOTMA) appeal of the Design Review Committee's October 2016 decision, which by a vote of 2-1, approved the proposed design for The Resort at the Sonoma Country Inn (the resort). Development of the resort, located at the foot of Hood Mountain, across from Lawndale Road, will have a lasting, significant and uncertain impact on Sonoma Valley and the Kenwood area in particular.
Property owner Tohigh Investments plans to construct a 50-room inn with 17 separate cottages, a 125-seat restaurant (50 outdoor seats), a spa, a large pool, and 102 parking spaces. A second phase envisions a 10,000-case winery with tasting room and events, in addition to an 11-lot, custom home subdivision. Tohigh is not requesting design approval for phase two right now.
Auberge Resorts originally proposed the project in 2001 as the Sonoma Country Inn. This prompted the formation of VOTMA, which along with many residents of Sonoma Valley, objected to various aspects of the project. Despite strident concerns of locals, the project was approved in 2004 by the Board of Supervisors. VOTMA's challenge of the Environmental Impact Report (EIR) was denied in 2006.
The project has been essentially dormant since its approval. The owners later sold the property, and in December 2014, the project was sold again for $41 million to Tohigh, a subsidiary of Chinese development conglomerate Oceanwide Holdings. In 2015, Tohigh filed for a Design Review, necessary to obtain a building permit.
VOTMA took issue with the new design Tohigh submitted for the inn, spa, and restaurant, as it was significantly changed from the approved 2004 design. Plus, the project's 2004 approval relied on the EIR which analyzed the impacts based on that original design. Tohigh's new proposal: 1) relocated and consolidated the cottages, potentially changing visibility from Highway 12 and raising geotechnical questions; 2) consolidated and relocated the parking closer to the spa and restaurant; 3) changed the inn structure and removed the south-facing roof to create an open-air, third-story lounge and observation area; 4) combined two smaller pools into one larger “infinity” pool and expanded the pool-side terrace; and 5) added a new operations building.
VOTMA asked the Design Review Committee (DRC) to reopen the EIR to assess whether Tohigh's new proposed design was consistent with the original analysis. This was based on perceived effects of the new proposal, including an increase in spa/bar/restaurant use, leading to more traffic in and out of the resort site. VOTMA also urged consideration of changes to water use, visibility, lighting and noise impacts, as well as questions about the effect of the recent drought on the trees and forested area surrounding the site, which provide crucial screening of development.
Finally, VOTMA asked that the traffic study commissioned by Auberge in 2002-03 be revised prior to the DRC's action on the new design. In the ensuing 13 years, traffic on Highway 12 has changed considerably, with increased commute traffic and new projects in development between The Springs and Los Alamos Road. On a conceptual level, VOTMA raised concerns that the new proposal represents a shift from Auberge's cloistered retreat destination, to a publicly facing restaurant with bar, and an events orientation promoted by Tohigh.
The DRC approved (2-1) the new design, declining to consider whether the effects of various design changes raised by VOTMA were consistent with the impact assessment in the original EIR. In response, VOTMA appealed the DRC decision to the Planning Commission, raising the same issues.
On July 21, the County's staff report recommended that VOTMA's appeal be rejected. VOTMA is currently evaluating the studies County staff used to support its recommendations. Among other things, we are distressed to see that in May 2017, seven months after DRC's approval, Tohigh again revised its project design. The inn's bar and 60 percent of the outdoor restaurant seating, previously located on an inner second floor courtyard terrace, have been relocated to the rooftop terrace that VOTMA opposed. VOTMA is concerned that the open-air restaurant/bar overlooking the valley will become a focus for loud gatherings and intense use all day long and late into the night. The public restaurant is permitted to be open daily from 6 a.m. to midnight, seven days a week. Tohigh's noise consultant has indicated that "there will be no events (e.g., weddings, live music) allowed on the roof terrace."
VOTMA believes that Tohigh's evolving design changes are not consistent with the resort as evaluated in the EIR and approved in 2004. VOTMA is hopeful that the Planning Commission will consider the changed conditions over the last 15 years since the EIR was compiled. We urge consideration of groundwater supply and consumption amounts, visibility of the resort during the day and at night, noise, traffic changes and safety, the additional trips likely to be generated by the public-serving focus of the restaurant/bar and spa, drought related impacts, and the cumulative impacts of traffic generated by projects completed over the last 15 years. VOTMA also urges that the yet-to-be-built wineries across from Oakmont, the Oakmont Gardens Memory Care project and the recently filed Elnoka 676-unit senior living facility west of Oakmont, all be explicitly considered in an updated traffic analysis of the revised Sonoma Country Inn project. Highway 12 is already congested. The prospect of the resort, along with aforementioned developments, increasing employee commute use and the ever-expanding winery event schedule in the Kenwood area, will severely degrade an already bad traffic congestion and safety situation.
When the Board of Supervisors approved the project in 2004 it did so by adopting a statement of overriding considerations that found that the benefits of the project outweighed the unavoidable adverse impacts of it. VOTMA asks that the Planning Commission balance those interests from today's perspective. At minimum, the commission should hold off on a decision until the County has completed the traffic study for Sonoma Valley that it has indicated will occur this summer, and for the revisions to the Sonoma County Traffic Demand Model to allow inclusion of Friday through Monday traffic, not merely the limited Tuesday through Thursday traffic covered in the current model.
VOTMA urges all who love the Kenwood area and the mountains, forests and agricultural lands that combine to create the rural rustic beauty of Sonoma Valley, to take note of what is at stake at the Aug. 3 hearing. The Resort at the Sonoma Country Inn will dramatically change the Hood Mountain Highway 12 area. Whether it is positive or otherwise will depend on the fate of the design changes being considered, as well as on compliance and enforcement with the conditions of approval. If you care about the outcome, please attend the Aug. 3 hearing at 1:30 p.m. at 2550 Ventura Ave. in Santa Rosa and make your voice heard. If you're unable to be there, send an email beforehand expressing your opinion to Georgia McDaniel, PRMD's point person on this matter at Georgia.McDaniel@sonoma-county.org.
The Sonoma Valley that we all love and cherish is depending on it.
Note: This article has been corrected from the column that appeared in the Aug. 1 issue, which misquoted Tohigh's noise consultant.
The Valley of the Moon Alliance was formed to promote the preservation, protection and maintenance of the agricultural character, natural resources and rural beauty of Sonoma Valley. We are committed to providing a forum for research, information, education and recommendations on projects that affect the environmental qualities of the valley communities.