County planning officials raised some eyebrows last week when they approved a new Dry Creek Road winery with a tasting room and promotional parties on vineyard land protected by an open space easement.

The county Board of Zoning Adjustments (BZA) said the county’s Agricultural Preservation and Open Space District easement allows a winery development including a tasting room and a “wine club VIP room,” despite the presence of a conservation easement.

Some Dry Creek Valley residents disagreed, including the Dry Creek Valley Association.

“It’s a very loose interpretation of what’s allowed,” said Dry Creek Valley resident Fred Corson. “These uses are contrary to the condition of the easement.”

The project’s applicants, real estate developer Bob Comstock and BCRS LLC, a Wall St. financial services firm specializing in high net worth clients, plan to develop the winery, tasting room and second-floor wine club hospitality room in an approximately 22,000-square-foot winery to be built on Dry Creek Rd. about a mile north of Healdsburg.

“It is our intention to create a quiet, small winery facility that produces outstanding wines from Sonoma County,” said the BCRS proposal.

“The new facility is designed to have minimal impact to the land with use of solar voltaic power, sustainable materials and systems and an architectural style that blends with the surroundings.”

The Comstock Winery project was presented to neighbors last year and drew widespread support, said Steve Martin, the project’s engineering and planning consultant.

“We had a very good turnout,” said Martin, of Steve Martin Associates in Sebastopol. “They all supported the project.”

Fourth District (Healdsburg area) Planning Commissioner Jason Liles was absent last week but supports the project, said Martin. Conditions include no weddings and no outdoor amplified music. The winery owners also have to submit an annual report to the county about their special events.

The project won approval last year from the Dry Creek Valley Citizens Advisory Council, of which Fred Corson is a member. At last week’s public hearing on the project Corson said he was commenting “on my own behalf.”

The project would be an appropriate use for the approximately 10-acre vineyard parcel, said Corson, “except for the fact that this parcel is under an Agricultural and Open Space easement,” Corson told the BZA last week.

The easement “defines very specifically what uses are to be allowed on this property” and specifically limits the property development to “a winery, including production, bottling and associated storage of wine,” said Corson.

“I question how this definition can be expanded to include a tasting room, second floor wine club/VIP hospitality room, outdoor hospitality area and 15 events,” said Corson.

The intent of a county open space easement is “to preserve and conserve the property’s agricultural production capacity, its soils, and its agricultural character, as well as to protect and maintain the scenic and openness values of the property for the benefit of the public generally,” said Corson in his comments to the BZA.

The Dry Creek Valley Association also questioned whether an open space easement is the right place to accommodate not just a winery but “ancillary wine club social uses” including a tasting room, a wine club hospitality room and year-round promotional parties with up to 200 people.

Approval of the project “could set a precedent for properties protected by conservation easements,” said Judith Olney of the Dry Creek Valley Association (DCVA).

County planners recommended approval of the project that was reviewed by the county Open Space District advisory committee last year and found in compliance with Open Space District easement criteria, said Sonoma County Planner Cynthia Demidovich.

“Do we have a definition of a winery?” in the county zoning rules, asked Planning Commissioner Tom Lynch, representing the 5th Supervisorial District.

“I don’t know that we have a codified definition,” said Demidovich.

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