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[whitespace] County supervisors approve permit, increase in seats at Mountain Winery

Saratoga--Although later than expected, the Mountain Winery obtained its use permit on Aug. 15 from the Santa Clara County Board of Supervisors, allowing the hillside facility to continue to operate as a concert hall, restaurant and wedding and business meeting venue.

For winery officials, it was better late than never.

According to the president of the winery, Nancy Bussani, obtaining the permit means that winery officials can now begin master planning for the expansion of the facility--specifically an increase in the number of seats in the concert bowl from 1,750 to 2,500, and a 1,500 square foot expansion of the winery building. She said the owners were hesitant about beginning improvement plans at the site before the supervisors' decision. No expansion will occur without future approval from the county planning commission.

Also, the winery can now move forward in selecting a promoter for its concert series, something that the owners have put off until now. The winery's contract with Villa Montalvo Center for the Arts expires this fall and the winery has received bids from three other companies as well as Montalvo. Bussani said the four owners of the winery would make a final decision on a promoter at the end of September. She said no matter which company the winery contracts with, it wants to have greater control over the concert series.

The county planning commission approved the winery's permit in March, but the city of Saratoga and the Saratoga Trail Enthusiasts--the nonprofit advocacy organization for the city's trails--both appealed the commission's decision to the board of supervisors. In approving the permit Aug. 15, the supervisors denied the appeals.

At the time of its appeal, the city held that traffic, noise, trails and parking concerns were not dealt with adequately and that the permit should cover only current uses, not future expansion plans. City officials at the time said the conditions the commission attached to the use permit were not adequate.

In June, the city and the winery came to a compromise on all issues, except trails. The Trail Enthusiasts and the winery have not reached an agreement, and now that the board has approved the winery's use permit, the enthusiasts say they are considering filing a court action challenging the environmental impact report (EIR), which they say contains flawed and inaccurate data. A consulting firm selected by the county and paid for by the applicant prepared the EIR.

At the hearing Aug. 15, Supervisor Joe Simitian, who represents Saratoga, suggested modifications to the permit's attached conditions, in response to some concerns of the city and the trail enthusiasts. The board unanimously approved the permit and the conditions.

"I think they're rigorous conditions but we were pleased to see unanimous approval," Bussani said.

The conditions limit the number of performing arts events to 75, and weddings, receptions and corporate banquets to a maximum of 450 events, with a range of 25 to 500 persons per event. Special events are limited to 36, with no more than three per month and no more than 1,500 persons per event. All concerts are to end at 10:30 p.m.

The conditions of the permit also hold that the winery will pay for the county to hire an acoustical engineer to recommend ways the winery can reduce noise from its events. The winery agreed to pay up to $100,000 to implement the engineer's recommendations and to finish all the work recommended by May 15, 2001.

To help control traffic after concerts, the winery agreed to hire three sheriff's deputies, or other law enforcement officers, on a one-year trial basis during the 2001 concert season. If the county determines that the program reduced traffic backup in the city, they will continue the program.

With Simitian's modifications, the final conditions hold that no more than two performing arts events could begin before 6:30 p.m., and that parking spaces at the site be limited to 700 for the 2000 concert season, with an increase to 725 after the concert bowl is expanded. He also added the condition that no parking is allowed on streets in the residential neighborhoods adjoining the winery.

In denying the trail enthusiasts' appeal, the supervisors held that they could not require the winery to grant a trail easement on a portion of the winery property located in Saratoga, alongside Pierce Road that the enthusiasts wanted the winery to grant. Pierce Road is the access road to the winery and its length is in the city limits. The trail segment is part of the city's master plan developed in 1991 for trails

The enthusiasts say the easement is a necessary mitigation measure since winery-associated traffic on Pierce Road impacts the bikers, pedestrians and equestrians that use the road since there is not a trail that runs parallel to it.

At the many hearings on the permit, Pierce Road residents and other nearby residents testified to the dangerous situation on the narrow, windy road, and about how it would only get worse when the winery expands.

The trail enthusiasts had also asked for a different trail easement on the part of the winery located in the county's jurisdiction, not Saratoga's. On June 5, the winery agreed in writing to grant that trail easement.

James Baron from the trail enthusiasts said that the traffic data in the EIR that addresses accidents on Pierce Road, on which the supervisors based their decision, is inaccurate.

"We think the EIR is fatally flawed in a whole bunch of areas," Baron said.

He said the board should have granted the enthusiast's request for another continuance on the hearing so that the public would have a chance to study new traffic data.

The winery has submitted a letter stating that it recognizes that when the portion of the winery located in Saratoga is subdivided in the future, the city will require the dedication of a trail there as a condition. However, the letter does not represent a binding agreement. According to Mayor Stan Bogosian, he will push for requiring the trail dedication if and when the owners submit plans to subdivide, if he is on the council.
Kara Chalmers

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Web extra to the August 24-30, 2000 issue of Metro.

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