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Sonoma coast tasting room approved over protests

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A disputed tasting room on vineyard property north of of Jenner will be the first on a rural stretch of the Sonoma County coast to offer public tasting, retail sales and special events after getting tentative approval Tuesday from the board of supervisors.

A group of neighbors had opposed the 5,986-square-foot facility on Meyers Grade Road, citing concerns about increased traffic, impacts on groundwater, greenhouse gases and coastal scenery. The county zoning board had unanimously approved the project in April, but critics appealed that decision to the board of supervisors.

The board Tuesday rejected that appeal after more than two hours of public testimony and discussion.

Citing reports by county staff and outside consultants, supervisors said the project was consistent with county planning documents and would not harm the rural character and resources of the area.

"These type of projects have been the most difficult of my time here on the board," Supervisor Efren Carrillo said in a nod to a number of recent public disputes over wine-industry facilities proposed for rural areas of Sonoma County. "But I think this project will be a good fit for the area," he said.

Lester and Linda Schwartz, owners of Fort Ross Vineyard, said building a tasting room on their 246-acre property was necessary to promote their wines, which are produced at a winery in Santa Rosa from estate-grown grapes .

The couples' supporters, including several tourism and lodging officials and a trio of winemakers and vendors, said an on-site tasting room would give an economic boost to the area.

"We are interested in every opportunity we have to make our county an appealing destination as a getaway," said Greg Hagin, manager of the Sea Ranch Lodge.

The tasting room will operate from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. most of the year — it will close at 5 p.m. from December through March — and be allowed to host 10 events per year with a maximum of 100 guests.

It will be outside the designated scenic and coastal zones, will be screened from Meyers Grade Road by trees and will generate only about 23 vehicle trips per day, county staff reported.

"It's a modest building," said Lester Schwartz. "We're simply asking for what the general plan and zoning regulations provide."

Neighbors and area residents opposed to the project sought to persuade supervisors that the project would set a precedent and cause a "cascade of commercial development on the coast."

"Piecemeal commercial development will forever change this unique scenic area," said Michael Singer, who said he was better known by the name Zippy.

Others voiced worries about an even small addition in traffic on the steep Meyers Grade Road or impacts on groundwater from the building's well.

"Keep the wild Sonoma Coast wild!" said Kay Barnes, whose property adjoins the tasting room parcel.

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