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The Staff Runs the Show: Planning Commission Votes To Do Nothing About Esterlina Winery’s Roadside Parking

A suspicious odor of deja vu permeated the Supervisors Chambers in Ukiah last Thursday afternoon when the Mendocino County Planning Commission considered a modification of Esterlina Winery's Holmes Ranch use permit "to address issues of visitation and off-site parking when on-site parking demand exceeds availability."

Planning department staff had already decided that there was no reason to modify the use permit, even though everyone agrees that at least six or seven times a year (or more in the near future) dozens of wine tasting cars are forced to park on Holmes Ranch Road, a semi-private rural residential road outside of Philo, when "special events" — aka well-advertised wine tastings — are held at the winery.

Years ago Mendo Supervisors, lead by current Fifth District Supervisor David Colfax, over-ruled the Planning Commission and allowed the then-Pepperwood Springs Winery to add a commercial tasting room, much to the consternation of many of the Holmes Ranch residents who foresaw just the sort of problem the Planning Commission was now hearing about. Since the day the Sterling family bought the place and renamed it "Esterlina," the neighbors have been attempting to get the Sterlings to comply with the modest conditions imposed when the Supes approved their tasting room use permit.

Last Thursday the issue was a very narrow one: Have the Sterlings violated their use permit which requires that visitation be "by appointment only" and that there be "adequate parking outside a public or private way?"

To the casual observer looking at photos of dozens of cars lined up on Holmes Ranch Road for the typical Esterlina "special event" there is obviously not "adequate parking outside a public or private way." But, according to top Planning Department staffer Frank "That's how we've always interpreted it" Lynch and Deputy County Counsel Frank "That depends on what you mean by adequate" Zotter, the five parking spaces currently provided by Esterlina are "adequate" because, according to the Planning Department's standard square footage formula, five parking spaces are plenty.

Eric Sterling, the de facto owner/manager of the winery/tasting room, told the Planning Commission that the neighbors' complaints are nothing but "harassment by people who want to close the winery." Sterling said that he had gone over the rules with Mr. Lynch in advance when his family bought the Pepperwood Springs winery from the Kalihers a few years ago, that none of the government agencies who had looked at their operation have found any violations, and that the neighbors' allegations are "not credible."

"Constantly answering questions is getting old," said Sterling, "We are in compliance."

But neighbor Giovanna Chacon told the Commission that "every weekend the 'by appointment only' rule is violated. No one is turned away. There are no controls. And without oversight no one knows how much." Apparently, if you show up without an appointment, an Esterlina staffer simply makes an appointment for you and you're in.

Ms. Chacon also complained that Esterlina's website doesn't say "by appointment only." Chacon also said that Esterlina had previously promised to remove some vines to make room for additional parking, "but they haven't done it." ... "The constant reinterpretation of the rules to suit Esterlina amounts to a cover up," said Chacon.

Holmes Rancher Dave Broadbent told the Commmission, "They've had five years to put in additional parking and they haven't done it. The rules always expand to fit the situation. There have been repeated instances of violations."

Yorkville resident Karen Ottoboni told the Commission that while she lives on a different — but similar — rural residential road in Anderson Valley (Yorkville Ranch Road), allowing Esterlina to park tasting room visitor cars on the road would set a bad precedent. Ottoboni noted that Yorkville Ranch Road now has a vineyard and it won't be long before somebody will want a tasting room. "These roads are not designed for commercial use," said Ottoboni. "They are precarious. Allowing this kind of parking is a slippery slope which sets a dangerous precedent. A lot of vineyard development is going on in Anderson Valley."

Esterlina neighbor Gene Herr told the Commission that the use permit's mitigations were inadequate in first place and are "open to whoever interprets them." Herr said that the special events amounted to a new use which voids the existing mitigations, adding that tourists parking on the road are a traffic hazard which obstruct people's view of the road and threatens ordinary walkers, hikers and horses. Herr suggested that a provision be added to the use permit requiring a parking and circulation plan, and that "by appointment only" means what it says and that persons without on-site parking be turned away.

Holmes Ranch Road Association President Ron Riskin told the Commission that even though the Commission had asked the disputing parties to "work something out" in the past, Mr. Sterling had never attended a meeting of the Association board. "We would like some acccomodation," said Riskin, "but it's hard to work with them when the County staff supports them and the staff runs the show." Riskin noted that staff has very little time to monitor the facility or the permit conditions. "No appointment? Ok, we'll make one" was Esterlina's position, said Riskin. "There are plenty of violations. We're tired of the facile approach to this. The staff seems to think that if Esterlina can't live within the rules they'll just modify or re-interpret the rules to suit them. There's simply no enforcement."

Riskin made two simple suggestions: 1. If there's a special event, Esterlina should use a shuttle to bring people in from outside the Ranch (as several other wineries currently do). And 2. Have Esterlina pay for an independent checker during special events to make sure the rules are complied with.

Riskin added that there should be no expansion of the commercial facility.

Eric Sterling didn't like Riskin's second suggestion at all: "The County can do a head count, but we won't pay for it," stated Sterling.

Commissioner Mark Edwards, a "resource consultant" and Registered Professional Forester, asked about Esterlina paying a fair share of road maintenance. "Yeah, if there's a fair way to calculate it," said Eric Sterling. "But I doubt there is."

Edwards, thinking out loud as usual, added, "I don't think we can control parking," and at that moment the audience realized that the Commission wasn't going to do anything. Commissioner Karen Calvert — always an autovote for bad — quickly agreed. "We can't have different rules for them," said Calvert. "Others can have visitors park on the road. Special events are a problem but..."

Mr. Zotter gave an example of how staff interprets the rules to favor Esterlina: "Seventy visitors per week [the current maximum according to the use permit] is ten per day which is about five cars. Which they have parking for. You don't build to a maximum. You can try to accomodate special events. So there's not a violation, strictly speaking."

This sparked a rambling discussion among the commissioners, comparing Esterlina's parking overflow to other places where events create parking problems — in Gualala, Mendocino, Hopland, etc. But those are commercial — not residential — areas.

Commissioner Greg Nelson, a grape grower himself (although no one suggested that he recuse himself) and former Fifth District Supervisorial candidate, said that special rules on one owner are unfair. (There are already special rules, as evidenced by the use permit itself, but Mr. Nelson didn't let that stop him.) "By this precedent you'd pave over the entire county for parking," said Nelson winning the award for the stupidest remark of the day.

Commissioner Don Lipmanson asked, "Why not have them rent a staging area and provide a shuttle?"

No one answered his question.

Riskin was generously allowed one last remark, saying, "If parking on the road is ok, this whole process is out of whack. The Association doesn't permit parking on the road." Riskin did admit that the Association hasn't changed their CC&Rs to formally prohibit it. (It would take a 75% majority.) But, "we tell everyone not to park on the road. It's the safest way. They could use a staging area and a shuttle."

Calvert, competing hard for the stupidest remark award, asked, "What about garden tours? Or weddings?" (Obviously, garden tours and weddings aren't regular commercial events like those at Esterlina.)

Lipmanson noted that the original permit didn't anticipate special events.

Edwards, backing as far as possible from his Planning Commission job as he could, said, "I think you should work it out. Try to get along. We shouldn't be hyper technical. A good neighbor would provide more parking." But the Sterlings haven't shown any inclination to do that — why should they if the Planning Commission and staff is going to allow parking on the road?

Commissioner Nelson summarized the majority opinion, "Five or six events a year is not a significant violation. The neighbors have recourse elsewhere." No they don't. No one else wants deal with the touri parking problem, on Holmes Ranch or anywhere else.

Lipmanson tried one more time, moving that there be no special events until there's a parking plan that eliminates the need to park on Holmes Ranch Road. Commissioner Molly Warner seconded, but that was all. Commissioners Calvert, Edwards, Chair Jim Little and Nelson voted No.

To rub it in, the motion to confirm the staff's do-nothing recommendation that there was "no significant violation" passed 4-2.

As she was going out the door, the still bitter Giovanna Chacon sarcastically remarked to Anderson Valley Fire Chief Colin Wilson (who had previously told the Planning Department that the winery/tasting room parking/traffic situation wasn't much of a fire hazard as long as the roadside grass was mowed), "Thanks a lot Chief. You've been very helpful — to them."

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