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Holmes Ranch Pastoralists Duke It Out

Anderson Valley's neo-Thoreauvians, Holmes Ranch division, came down out of the hills for last Thursday’s Planning Commission meeting determined to stop two of their neighbors from establishing County-sanctioned wine tasting rooms on the premises of their existing wineries.

On one level the hearing was a straightforward bureaucratic process that allowed people for and against to state their cases. On another, seething hostilities were revealed. Neighbors accused neighbors of being snoops, slobs, frauds, scofflaws, greedheads, bad drivers, liars, and generally defective human beings.

Although the hearing was long and mostly dull, the theatrical moments of personal insult occurred often enough to keep people from dozing off.

At issue were a pair of use permit applications from Mr. and Mrs. Klindt and Mrs. Kaliher to expand their small wineries. the Klindts’ winery is at the foot of Holmes Ranch on property formerly owned by Rex and Milla Handley of nearby Handley Cellars Winery. Mrs. Kaliher and her husband own Pepperwood Winery at the top of the Holmes Ranch subdivision. It was founded by the legendary blind winemaker, Larry Parsons. Both the Klindts and the Kalihers want permission to for on-site wine tasting and retail sales. They are already doing both, much to the dismay of many of their neighbors.

The opposition to the Klindts and the Kalihers focused primarily on the commercial sales in the tasting rooms and the increased traffic load expanded business necessarily brings to the Ranch’s perennially rough dirt roads. The larger objections have to do with Mendocino County’s notoriously flexible land use and zoning policies.

The smaller wine businesses can more effectively move their product if they can lure prospective buyers to their wineries where the customer can meet the winemaker and apply the full schmooze to the gastro-tourists with show and tell. A small winery can also make more money by selling its wine directly one bottle at a time at maximum markup.

What about renting a tasting room on the highway?

Too expensive for small bottlers to set up, say the vintners, plus a few Highway 128 property owners are famously unwelcoming, even to auslanders waving great fistfuls of cash. And, using someone else's tasting room, requires the vintner to sell his wine for less.

As the meeting began, a member of the audience succinctly summarized the ensuing process to his companion: “This is where the public puts the applicant on trial.” And indeed, it did have aspects of a trial — the Planning Commission launched a thorough hearing on all the issues involved in granting the applicants their official Mendo seal of approval. Needless to say several lawyers in incongruously fancy suits hovered over the process like buzzards over a deer carcass on a hot summer day.

Mr. Klindt represented himself, Mrs. Kaliher had John Behnke of the Jared Carter Ukiah legal bagnio representing her. (If it’s big, bad, and inimical to the public interest, Carter and Co. are the inevitable attorneys of record.) Ernie and Giovanna Chacon had Allen Cone of Mendocino to represent the opposition. Present for the Planning Commission was Deputy County Counsel Frank Zotter.

The County Planning Department had prepared two nearly identical staff reports on the expansion applications, recommending approval of both but with a few cottage industry style minor restrictions. Sales hours would be limited and wine buyers would require appointments.

Mr. Klindt and Mrs. Kaliher, the primary spokespeople for their operations, said they hadn't paid much attention to their use permits and didn't realize that they did not have permission to operate tasting rooms. Klindt conceded he had also been making more wine than allowed. Both parties claimed ignorance of their use permits restrictions. They also said they were very small and unobtrusive and didn't understand why there was such a hullabaloo since they had been operating this way for years without any serious problems or complaints from their neighbors.

But their opponents, as pointed out by attorney Cone, weren't buying Snow White as Holmes Ranch vintner. While the two operations claimed to be “by appointment only,” Cone said, their marketing materials in Saveur magazine and on the internet make it obvious that both enterprises are actively promoting themselves. They even advertise regular tasting room hours, Cone said. Cone also objected to the county’s creative and selective application of only some of the cottage industry restrictions.

There was a discussion of water problems. The County Water Agency says there's been a 10% decline in the water table surrounding the applicants’ properties. The UC Ag Extension says irrigated vineyards use 178 gallons of water per vine, and Fetzer was quoted as saying that they use only three gallons of water in the production of one gallon of wine.

Increased traffic on the Holmes Ranch’s washboarded dirt roads? The applicants think the SUVs and Lexuses that bring their tasters into the subdivision will have a relatively minor impact on the roads since there aren't that many of them. Also, argued the applicants with a convenient speciousness, construction trucks and locals are responsible for most of the traffic and road wear and tear.

Several opponents, however, were worried about the visitors having too much to drink and careening off the road or, worse, into one of them. Opponents also say that road impact is greater because the wineries import grapes in big trucks because their vineyards are inadequate to their production volumes. The wine customers, being unfamiliar with the roads, become a hazard when they can't negotiate its slumps, twists, turns, inclines, slides, and seasonal washouts, washboards, rocks, and wild life particularly at night. Holmes Rancher Dave Broadbent reported eight cars going off the road at the turn at his property alone over the last few years. “And that just counts the ones who couldn't get out on their own,” he added. Others pointed out that the visitor trips add up pretty fast over the year.

Is a tasting room allowed as agriculture? Attorney Behnke argued that the county code for the “upland residential” zoning on the Holmes Ranch which specifically permits agriculture lists tasting rooms under the ag portion of upland residential zoning — with a major use permit. Opponents said the Holmes Ranch's private CC&Rs (“conditions, covenants and restrictions,” which were established before the zoning restrictions) prohibited commercial sales and that they took precedence. Behnke replied that CC&Rs are not enforced by the county, but by civil avenues (courts and lawsuits).

Mr. Klindt, a transplanted San Jose social worker, delivered a lengthy and folksy history of his winery, saying that the present use permit limit on gallons produced would not support his family. Klindt pointed out that so far he's made all his wine from grapes he's bought, not grown on site, although he's planted ten acres which he expects to “come on line” in a couple of years. Klindt said he plans to put in a few more acres of grapes eventually. He objected to Ms. Chacon's description of his operation as a “shotgun winery,” remarking that he was just a small player trying to make an independent living in a highly competitive business. Klindt said the vehicle traffic associated with his operation was no big deal. Mr. Klindt estimated that only 10-15% of his sales were to visitors to his winery.

Mr. Klindt pointed out that he had been advised that he was up against “some very formidable opponents,” and that he should forget modifying his use permits because they'd steamroller him, but he was stalwartly marching on because he sees no reasonable objections to his business. He said he was “so stressed and frightened” last year about the prospect of being put out of business by the opposition and what he described as the burgeoning anti-vineyard sentiment in Anderson Valley and on the Northcoast generally that he made more wine than he's ever made, significantly exceeding the amount allowed by his permit — all because of some unspecified anti-booze apocalypse. Klindt said he had accumulated a lot of debt, but that he was storing some wine at the Floodgate and hoped to open up a tasting room there. He may not need the tasting room he’s applied for.

Attorney Cone opened his presentation with a well-produced video produced by the Chacons (Mr. Chacon is a former NBC news producer) showing the fog-shrouded, tree-lined vistas of Holmes Ranch, slowly zeroing in on an industrial-looking winery with machinery laying around outside. The visual contrasts of redwood and fog and industro-detritus were as dramatic as they are in reality. Mrs. Chacon's voice-over, accompanied by muted banjo music, emphasized that “our vistas are precious to us. We do not want to relinquish our privacy and peace.”

Cone blasted the Klindts for violating their existing permits and the subdivision's CC&Rs, saying that they had to have known they’d been operating in violation of the law for years. Cone said the Klindts should not be allowed to use the “we've been doing it for years” argument, because that would set a bad precedent. Cone also said that it took the county a year to act when the violations were pointed out, and they’re still not corrected, so what likelihood is there that future restrictions will be enforced? “Do these new conditions and mitigations have any meaning,” Cone asked, “or are they just a sop to the neighbors?” Cone said there were no objections to grapes or wineries, only to the commercial sales, especially since the applicants were making wine from grapes brought in from elsewhere. Cone added that this was not just a matter of rubberstamping an application and a staff report. “If everyone's free to do their own thing,” he asked, “then why do we need you?,” he asked the Commission.

Several neighbors spoke in support of the application(s) — Dan Sokolow, Roger Houmani, Rod Baseshore, Gary Church, Barry Chiverton, Hjalmer Rozen, Lynn Roman, Jim Rathe, as well as non-neighbor Mike Shapiro. Most of the speaking in support said the vintners were not much of a bother, they were nice people, and they should be allowed to have their businesses. Shapiro, singing it completely, defended the applicants by saying that locals are the biggest speeders and road damagers, not the tourists, adding, “The CHP stats show it's the locals.” He didn’t produce the stats.

A somewhat larger contingent of neighbors were opposed — Peggy Minacler, Dave Broadbent, John Gorman, Barbara Johanna, Gene Herr, Ron Riskin, Ann Lizborne, Fred Martin, Bob Carroll… Their objections were variations on the themes previously presented by attorney Cone.

Riskin, a relative newcomer to The Valley and the Holmes Ranch whose ridgetop manse looms up over the subdivision like Noah’s Ark complete with some kind of eyesore global communications antenna, appeared in an expensive suit to identify himself as an attorney and a capitalist. “This is a very frustrating experience, I don't know how you can do it,” Riskin said, en route to objecting to petty capitalism in his own neighborhood, “there are competing interests. I'm a capitalist. I'm an attorney by background, but commercial activity is just not what I expected when I bought my house. I've seen what's happened to Napa and Sonoma counties and it's not a pretty sight.”

And it’s happening right now to Anderson Valley where it isn’t a pretty sight either.

A few non-Holmes ranchers spoke in opposition to the Holmes Ranch winery expansions, most assertively Mendocino actor-activist Lee Edmundson, who described himself as a “freelance, pro bono, community activist.” Edmundson expressed water concerns — saying a total of 625 gallons of water are used per gallon of wine (including rainwater, according to Nick Frey, Executive Director of the Sonoma County Grape Growers Association). Edmundson said there just wasn't enough information on water supplies to give the application a “negative declaration” on environmental impacts. “We don't want tasting rooms on backroads,” added Edmundson, worried that allowing tasting rooms on rural subdivisions would open a floodgate of other noxious businesses in the semi-rural subdivisions of Mendocino County.

Opposition organizer Giovanna Chacon summarized her opposition by saying she was opposed to the “commercial incursion” represented by the tasting rooms. “We object to the commercial part of this operation. Holmes Ranch is our last bastion away from commercialism.”

Attorney Behnke said his client, Mrs. Kaliher, was most concerned with the 10 visitors per day limit. He addressed what he called “the scofflaw issue” (that they were already knowingly violating their permits) by saying Ms. Kaliher was just doing what the blind winemaker, the late Larry Parsons, was doing before her purchase of the place. She’d bought his business assuming she could simply continue doing what Lar The Legend had done: sell wine on top of the hill, grow dope down below with recreational quail shoots in between, his young son directing Lar’s shotgun fire. Behnke also accused the neighbors of being snoops. “Apparently what people do on the Holmes Ranch is look into other people's files,” he asserted.

Gene Herr soon rose in high dudgeon to say that “Mr. Behnke implying that a public file is private and that looking at it is improper… is beyond the pale.” (It’s typical of the Carter Combine to sneer at any democratic practice that gets in the way of whatgever skullduggery their typically well-heeled clientele of heels is up to.)

Like Mr. Klindt, Ms. Kaliher delivered a rambling history of her winery as well as some revealing math. “We make 50% more on retail sales,” she admitted, “and about 50% of our sales are retail. The rest is through brokers.”

Ms. Kaliher said she donated wine to local fundraisers and how important it is to be able to import grapes if she has a bad growing year. From the rear a male voice was heard grumbling, “blah, blah, blah.” Ms. Kaliher also complained about how hard it would be to administer a 10 visitor per day limit, adding, pointedly, “unless someone is outside watching you to see if you're compliant.”

Count on it, Mrs. K.

Broadbent rose again to point out that calling winemaking “agriculture” was “a real stretch.” “If winemaking is agriculture then Heublein and Seagrams and so forth and their distilleries are agriculture. They start with agricultural products too. But they don't walk around the distilleries with straw hats. It's crazy to call this ‘agriculture’.”

Ann Lizborne, a Mendocino therapist, came forward to announce that she had been a resident of the Holmes Ranch for 20 years and that this was a quality of life issue, drifting off the matter at hand into dreamy riffs about the sanctity of her privacy.

“Get to the point,” interrupted Commissioner McCowen with a refreshing brusqueness, noting the lateness of the hour and the time eaten up by other irrelevant testimony.

“The area has drastically changed,” Lizborne continued blithely. “We are at a turning point. I have some personal issues and observations.” As the solipsism piled up around her like sandbags around a machine gun emplacement, Lizborne, whined about her ever-increasing road association dues (now up to $250/year). “And my water is much worse,” she said.

“Water quality is not at issue unless it involves these particular wineries,” interrupted McCowen, tapping on his info packets.

“I want to give my personal experience,” insisted Lizborne, ignoring McCowen. “My water quality is down. A beautiful apple orchard was torn down in two days to put in a vineyard…”

“I object to this,” interrupted McCowen. “This is irrelevant. I won't sit here and listen to irrelevant testimony.”

“I have personal observations,” repeated Lizborne. “The quality of life is a major issue.” After which she finally took her seat.

Gene Herr explained that the neighbors hadn't complained before because they had taken the vintners' statements that they were not doing public wine tasting at face value. “But then we saw the ad in Saveur magazine for public wine tasting, said Herr. “There was a map showing the route from San Francisco to Highway 128 and Holmes Ranch and my house. There was no indication that there was controlled access.”

Several people thought the applicants and the other Holmes Ranch property owners and/or the road association should just get together and work out an agreement that the Commission could rubberstamp. Most attendees agreed this would be nice, but no one seemed to know how to go about it. Besides, the Klindts are going to be out of town for the next few weeks.

Variations of the “competing dreams” problem were mentioned by several speakers: The winemakers' precious dreams of having their own small boutique wineries versus the neighbors' precious dreams of retreating from commercial activity.

Toward the end of his presentation attorney Behnke showed the commission some language from the county's General Plan that spoke about the county’s stated intention to support and encourage successful — i.e., profitable — business and agricultural activity.

But the public, as represented by the county, is not in the business of worrying about anyone's dreams, nor should it be in business of guaranteeing the profits of individual businesses. The county’s “successful businesses” language seems like a vague reference to the County not doing anything explicit to hurt business in general and run an efficient ship so that businesses don't lose money because of the way it operates.

By 5 o'clock the five Commissioners present had heard about six hours of tasting room “testimony” and were justifiably worn out. Before he left for a prior commitment, Commission Chair Tom Piper noted that his initial thought was that the applications should be approved on the condition that the tasting rooms are on the Valley floor. The remaining commissioners let the applicants wrap up their remarks and then voted to continue the matter to Friday, January 7th (tentatively), probably in Anderson Valley again. The public hearing was declared closed; the next step is for the commission to discuss the application and vote. But they could also vote to re-open the public hearing and hear new testimony if, for example, an agreement is worked out by the end of the millennium.

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