Judge Sends Financier’s Winery Project Back to Sonoma County Supervisors

Sonoma County supervisors will re-open the public hearing on a wealthy financier’s boutique winery after project opponents complained Supervisor Shirlee Zane had improper communication with the developer before it was approved.

A use permit for the 10,000-case winery proposed for the hills north of Santa Rosa by Goldman Sachs partner Henry Cornell was issued in December 2012 over the objection of neighbors and environmentalists who claimed the project isn’t a good fit for the area.

Among other things, opponents said the 40-acre winery off St. Helena Road would harm water quality and endangered fish in Mark West Creek and increase traffic beyond capacity on the narrow mountain lane.

But an environmental review conducted during an eight-year application process found the project would have no significant effects. It suggested more than 80 changes, including cutting the maximum production of the winery in half, to safeguard wildlife and water.

Cornell’s attorney said the changes added more than $1 million to the cost of the project.

Opponents were unsatisfied. They sued to stop the winery from being built, claiming the environmental analysis was flawed and the project conflicted with county planning and zoning law.

The opposition group calling itself New-Old Ways Wholistically Emerging, or NOWWE, also sought to block the winery on the grounds that it was approved in violation of their due process rights.

Their lawsuit claims Zane was not an impartial decision-maker because she met with the developer outside of a public hearing, walked the property and discussed the project. It also alleges Zane made false statements about the winery’s effects on water to persuade her colleagues to vote for the project.

Among the allegations are that Zane falsely stated California Department of Water Resources hydrologist Chris Bonds had been hired by another project opponent and told her the environmental analysis related to water was adequate.

Zane disclosed her ex-parte communication only after the public hearing, giving the group no time to respond or object, according to the claim by NOWWE.

Opponents sought an order from Sonoma County Superior Court Judge Gary Nadler to withdraw the use permit, essentially quashing the project.

But county lawyers offered a different solution — to hold another public hearing and give opponents a chance air their concerns. Then supervisors could vote on the project again.

This week, Nadler sided with the county, ordering a new hearing within 90 days. Nadler warned against “rubber stamping” the project and suspended the use permit until the hearing is complete.

He has not ruled on other aspects of the lawsuit. It is pending the outcome of a trial. A trial date has not been set.

Zane’s aide Michelle Whitman referred calls to Deputy County Counsel Verne Ball.

Later on Thursday, Zane said she disagreed with the allegations. “But if they feel that they did not have the opportunity to be heard I am happy to revisit the matter in a public hearing,” she said.

Ball would not discuss the allegations but said there has been no violation of law. He said the claim was never raised before the project was approved.

“The petitioner claims their due process rights were violated,” Ball said Thursday. “We feel they were not.”

An attorney for NOWWE, Stephan Volker, did not return calls Wednesday or Thursday seeking comment.

You can reach Staff Writer Paul Payne at 568-5312 or paul.payne@pressdemocrat.com