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Sebastopol v. Winery

After the Sebastopol City Council heard from two-dozen residents on Feb. 3 -- all of whom spoke against the huge Dairyman Winery and Distillery proposed for Highway 12 -- it unanimously and vigorously opposed the project. The large, attentive crowd flowed beyond standing room into the lobby. Now the project goes before the County of Sonoma, where it will ultimately be decided.

“Moratorium” on wineries in Sonoma County and “EIR” (Environmental Impact Report) were two words often heard in the testimonies. The application was criticized on numerous grounds, including the following: extensive use of water, especially in our time of drought, traffic increase, damage to the unique Laguna de Santa Rosa, and threats to the many users of the Joe Rodota Trail that traverses the property.

Dairyman’s proposal for the 68 acres includes 87,000 sq. ft of buildings and pads, an annual capacity of 500,000 cases of wine and 250,000 gallons of distilled spirits, and up to 58 promotional events a year with as many as 600 people a time. It would be open until 10 p.m.

Aerial view of current Dairyman operation, and surroundings (photo by B!M).
Aerial view of current Dairyman operation, and surroundings (photo by B!M).

The applicant, 32-year-old Napa County winemaker Joe Wagner, briefly introduced his winery, which would reportedly be the 15th largest in Sonoma County. His family has grapes or wineries in four counties. He asserted that this site was selected because of “its great potential on a heavy thorough-fare.”

“We are not considering being organic,” he admitted, revealing that he uses conventional chemicals, which would damage this unique environment. Wagner acknowledged that it would “increase truck traffic and emissions.” He suggested, “This would be a better use of the property.” He also agreed that he had submitted “incomplete studies.”

 "All he did was throw buzz words out there that he thought would work,” commented grape grower Bill Shortridge. “There were no details. No answers. He brought nothing to the table, which leads me to believe everything we are worried about would occur."

Councilmember Comments

“I would encourage citizens to engage in civil disobedience,” if this proposal is approved, commented Councilmember John Eder. He was concerned, as were Mayor Patrick Slater and others, by the safety risks to users of the popular Rodota Trail. Mayor Slater quoted the application’s demand that pedestrians and cyclists would need “to yield to Dairyman traffic,” which would be significant with events of up to 600 people.

“This project is a slap in the face,” Mayor Slater said. “The Joe Rodota Trail is a tremendous facility. People use it to get to work, for recreation, and for health reasons. I’m staggered by the scale of this project.”

“To ask families with kids to stop on the trail for cars is outrageous,” Eder asserted. Christine Dufond, a mother with her young daughter Luci, spoke against the project. She focused on “Sebastopol’s commitment to sustainable community, and how holding this vision means setting boundaries with proposals  that threaten the ecosystem of both our land and our community." Eder suggested that families consider blocking access to the winery “with strollers.” He concluded, “I cannot come up with one reason to justify this proposal. This is the wrong project in the wrong place.”

“The Joe Rodota Trail is the North Bay’s most popular bike trail,” reported Sonoma County Bicycle Coalition member Gary Helfrich. “Now there would be a private road across the public trail. The traffic study is a fantasy. Operation of this project must be subordinate to the safety of trail users.”

Joe Rodota Trail (photo by Ernie Carpenter).
Using the Joe Rodota Trail (photo by Ernie Carpenter).

The City Council agreed to send a letter to Sonoma County’s Permit and Resource Management Department (PRMD). They complained that they were given inadequate time to study the application, inform the public, and comment. The deadline for their letter to planner Traci Tesconi ( was Feb. 4, but apparently has been extended, due to public pressure. The Council urged residents to make their comments known to the County, which will make the final decision on the application. Its public hearing is not yet scheduled.

“”Hell No!,” said Councilmember Sarah Gurney. “The demand on nature is too great. We have taken for granted the greenbelt separator between Sebastopol and Santa Rosa. The Laguna is a resource of international significance. This is a production facility that should be located closer to Highway 101, rather than in this rural area. If it produced nourishing food, that would be better.”

Gurney noted that all of the many emails that she had received in the week since the winery proposal became known to the public opposed it. Those emails included some from groups such as the Laguna Foundation, the Rural Alliance, Sonoma County Conservation Action, and Sonoma Water Information Group (SWiG), as well as from various food farmers.

“Our commons is the water, air, land, and the infrastructure, like roads, that enable us to function,” commented Councilmember Una Glass. “What is good for the common good is what we decision-makers need to think about. There is a backlash against the Napafication of Sonoma County. We are becoming a Disneyland with all these event centers. Businesses need to be concentrated near transit sites.”

“This is an industry masquerading as a farm,” noted Councilmember Eder. “You are a developer. This looks like a farm theme park, like Knotts Berry Farm.”

“You will not have smooth sailing ahead,” Eder warned. “If CalTrans does not allow a left hand turn, this project is dead,” he said. Highway 12 at the point of Dairyman, which is close to Llano Road, is high-speed and with double yellow lines separating its two lanes, meaning that a left turn would be illegal, as well as hazardous.

“You will be sued,” asserted Councilmember Robert Jacob. “This will be an uphill battle. Every hurdle possible will occur.”

Water Issues

“There is a lack of real inquiry by PRMD on this project,” alleged SWiG geologist Jane Neilson,Ph.D. “The winery's use of water is not well defined. This project needs to acknowledge the Santa Rosa Plain groundwater management plan and now the state requirement for sustainability. Pumping all over the Laguna has an impact on all wells.”

“The wells on our property have dried up before,” explained Brenda Nichols, who lives at the edge of the Laguna. “Twelve wells on our street dried up when they built a hotel nearby. It floods all the time on Llano Road. Will our wells dry up again?”

“Our water supply is fragile,” commented SWiG geologist Howard Wilshire, Ph.D. “We should not go on with business as usual. Water is a critical resource that we depend on.”

“We are concerned with the possibility of this project being precedent-setting,” said Rural Alliance’s Anna Ransome. “Napa County has run out of water and land, so people are coming here.” She noted that when one visits the site there is much standing water, though it has not rained for a while. This indicates possible wetlands there.

The Rural Alliance’s letter to PRMD notes that the Gravenstein Creek crosses the property, which is part of the Laguna de Santa Rosa uplands. This parcel is also Tiger Salamander habitat. They conclude that “the project would not be of benefit to Sebastopol and its environs.”

“Let’s request a moratorium on any more wineries,” requested Magick. “This is not agriculture. It is really an entertainment center. Flush it!”

“We need to know the exact figures of how much more water will be used,” said Paul-Andre Schabracq. “There is a whole soup of chemicals that appear in this water,” he said, referring to the use of wastewater being planned. He indicated that many other agencies need to be informed of this application.

It takes 29 gallons of water to produce a single glass of wine, according to a recent Sacramento Bee article. Water is used for many things at wineries. The exact amount of water is difficult to determine, but it is clearly a lot.

The Laguna Foundation’s executive director David Bannister wrote a letter to PRMD that noted the following:

  • “The property is in a community separator zone between Sebastopol and Santa Rosa.
  • “The project is an industrial use that we think is inappropriate in the community separator.
  • “Zoning overlays on the property include ‘floodplain, scenic resource and valley oak habitat districts.’ How is the proposed use consistent with these overlays and how will those resources be protected?
  • “This large wine and spirits production facility will use huge amounts of water. How much water?”

“This project is reckless disregard for its consequences. It is growth at its worst,” testified Bob Beauchamp. “We need to talk about growth,” added former Sebastopol Mayor Craig Litwin. “Crossing the trail is a recipe for disaster,” this father of three added.

“The traffic is already a race track,” noted Carol Vellutini of the  Westside Community Association. “We’re so saturated with events at wineries. We’re done with wineries.” Her group helped defeat celebrity chef Guy Fieri’s proposal of a winery in a rural area last month.

“This is the beginning of the process and there will be other opportunities for the public to comment on the application,” noted Ransome. “The Sebastopol City Council should be commended for dealing with this at short notice and protecting the environment and the public from improper development.” 

(Shepherd Bliss ( operates Kokopelli Farm, teaches at Dominican University, and has contributed to 24 books.)


  1. Fred Allebach February 14, 2015

    This project needs all the push back possible by county residents concerned with multiple huge vineyard projects proposed there in Sebastopol, by Sears Point in the Tolay Springs project, La Campagna in Kenwood, 2000 home new development in Rohnert Park; what in the world are stakeholder residents saving water for if just to be used up by 1% development free riders? No, the water is a common pool resource and the savings stakeholders work to conserve cannot be externalized as profit for others without a clear public benefit. These projects in total represent a pattern of the tragedy of the commons, the groundwater commons. At this point apropos of Full Cost Accounting sustainability, Climate Action 2020, the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act, we are not amiss in the least in expecting government to step up and move beyond business as usual. Time to put the brakes on this J-curve growth and spread out what we already have.

  2. Bill Shortridge February 17, 2015

    Sonoma County has gone from an agriculture that benefitted all, to a monoculture that benefits a very few. It is time to place a moratorium on new vineyard installation to determine the damage vineyards have done to the ecosystem. How much have vineyards contributed to the drought? How can we better regulate the glut of wineries? These behemoths tap our natural resources without regard to those who live in the area. Our world is becoming more fragile every day. It needs to stop, re-adjust and grow in a more responsible way. Full disclosure: I work in the wine industry and I own a small vineyard that is less than an acre. If I knew then what I know now, I would’ve planted apples.

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