JUST SAY NO. Over the years the tiny hamlet of Freestone has been eyed by real estate developers wanting to mine the beauty of the valley for personal gain and they have been stopped. The owners of the McDonald mansion think they know better than the residents who live there that this oversized and destructive (230 parking spaces) event center is what is good for us. In an already water scarce area due to vineyard encroachment he is using water as a leverage to get his development. Eric Koenigshofer, calls Webley’s project “the biggest threat to the rural character and quality of life in the area in nearly 40 years.” We agree, stop industrializing our rural areas that need to be protected and not turned into profit centers for the very, very rich who think they know better than the people who live there.
FREESTONE — Evolving plans for a new wine-related event center at the entrance to this rural, historic village have some people here bracing for a fight, afraid the charm and flavor of their pastoral valley may be in jeopardy.
After the owner of a prominent farmstead at the crossroads of Bodega and Bohemian highways sought permission in January to convert his landmark barn into a wine-tasting venue, tap room and art gallery, concerned residents spread the word, preparing to mobilize once the proposal reached a more advanced stage.
But Sonoma County planners already have put the project on hold, telling property owners John and Jennifer Webley it won’t be allowed to go forward without significant revision, according to Tennis Wick, director of the county’s Permit and Resource Management Department.
“It is substantially out of scale with the community,” Wick said in an interview. “This is not the right use. It’s not the right scale of use. It’s development that’s completely out of character with the community.”
But John Webley, a well-known innovator and entrepreneur who owns Santa Rosa’s landmark McDonald Mansion, the Victorian estate he restored at the heart of the historic McDonald Avenue neighborhood, said his envisioned Freestone project, Mableton Farms, has been largely misunderstood.
The written proposal calls for a 6,200-square-foot tasting room and commercial area, with an outdoor patio and a separate, lawn area nearby to host outdoor events. A total of 230 parking places were included, including 50 near the barn, in part to accommodate three events a year drawing as many as 300 people each. Food sales, promotional lunches and dinners also were planned.
Webley said the project would not be the highly commercial, Napa-style wine center that his critics make it out to be.
“What I’m trying to do is good for them, and they don’t know it,” he said.
He said he bought the 205-acre property 21 years ago at the behest of locals who wanted to keep it from falling into the hands of developers. But after paying nearly half a million dollars in property tax since that time, he said he and his wife can no longer keep spending money just “so people can enjoy a view.”
As an alternative, he could, he said, just bulldoze the barn, build a big metal structure in its place, plant more vineyards and make wine.
“That’s a very viable choice and, for me, the least expensive and the easiest to do,” he said.
But brick-oven baker Jed Wallach, owner of popular Wild Flour Bakery, located across the main road from Webley’s barn, said it would be an understatement to say locals were alarmed by the proposal.
There seems to be no shortage of tasting rooms in the region, he said, “but there does indeed seem to be a shortage of little, small, sleepy towns.”
The budding standoff appears to be another example of the countywide backlash over winery and event center developments in rural areas. The county has been pressed to wade in on the issue in a stronger way, outlining for proponents the types of uses and projects allowed in those areas while spelling out for residents limits and enforcement that could address their concerns about noise, traffic and other impacts. The Board of Supervisors is expected to take up the matter later this year.
Webley’s Freestone property is made of two combined parcels, roughly bounded by Salmon Creek and Jonive Road. It includes green pastures, clusters of trees and small-scale vineyards. It abuts Bodega Highway only near the Bohemian Highway intersection, part of Sonoma County’s very first official “historic district.”
The huge, historic white barn and silo on the site are in failing condition and Webley said he would like to restore the cavernous structure and rebuild the foundation. But he said he can do so only if there’s a way to generate enough income to cover the cost, up to $2 million.
So he came up with a plan inspired in part by the history of the McDonalds — the former owners of his stately Santa Rosa home, who kept gardens and orchards called Mableton Farms in Sebastopol — and by his Freestone acreage, once farmed by pioneer settler Jasper O’Farrell, who planted hops there, Webley said
The plan was to convert the barn to its original appearance and use it to house a tasting room offering pinot noir made from 30 acres of vineyard planted on the property. Also included would be a small brewery made from hops grown on the land and a gallery featuring his artist daughter’s work. A large organic garden would permit visitors to pick and buy fresh produce right on site, Webley said. The wreckage of a small white structure once inhabited by O’Farrell would be replaced with an information center.
The annual events would consist of pinot and paella festivals featuring seafood paella made by his brother-in-law chef, Gerard Nebesky, who resides on the property. Webley said most of the parking for the occasions would have been on the grass. The permit application also called for up to two dozen wine and beer club member events each year. Projected daily visitorship was 40 people on average, with 80 on a peak day.
The Webleys are now downsizing their proposal and making adjustments to comply with limitations on commercial uses for the land.
John Webley said his main objectives are to restore the historical buildings and “preserve the culture and character of the place,” sharing it with others by giving them reason to come and enjoy the place.
However, Freestone’s water supply issues represent another, significant obstacle for the project.
Webley, a former telecom innovator who founded Trevi Systems, an international desalination technology company, has offered to provide the community a 35,000-gallon water storage tank and some of his own well water from the Freestone property. The Freestone Water District’s 28 customers, who already have raised their own rates substantially to pay for water filtration, would have to charge themselves more for transmission lines and other infrastructure needed to see Webley’s proposal to fruition.
Some say they have little choice but to do so, and feel as if Webley is holding his contributions over their head as leverage to build support for his development plan.
Occidental attorney and former county supervisor Eric Koenigshofer, who once lived in Freestone, sent out 2,000 direct mailers, calling Webley’s project “the biggest threat to the rural character and quality of life in the area in nearly 40 years,” affecting people in towns all the way from Occidental to Bodega and beyond. He said more than 400 area citizens have mailed back response cards cut from the fliers asking to be kept informed about the project as it develops.