Bill Hocker | Jan 24, 2021
I would ask you to reconsider the approval of the Anthem Winery project by the Planning Commission and uphold the appeal of neighbors who will be impacted by imposition of this public facility in the midst of their rural community.
There are technical grounds to uphold the appeal; at the end of the Staff letter to you, while recommending support of the Planning Commission decision, Staff also leavened their advice with this contradictory qualification:
"[G]ven the local context of the winery site, site constraints, water supply, the extent the site would need to be manipulated to provide adequate access and accommodate an expanded winery and visitation levels, and the requests and exceptions necessary to accommodate the expanded winery, this site may not be appropriate for a winery of the requested size and visitation level."
For those of us on Soda Canyon Road, the question of access constraints became very real during the 2017 Atlas fire. Just before the fire, the Board approved findings for a similar winery project proposed near the end of road. The findings concluded that emergency ingress and egress on the road would not be a problem in the event of an emergency. A downed tree at the start of the fire quickly gave lie to that finding. Emergency vehicles could not move up the road. Residents could not exit as the fire surrounded the road. It was a near catastrophe.
In the Anthem project, one look at the one-lane bridge and the 17' wide driveway leading to it on the site plan, and at the 20% grade to be surmounted on the route, should be enough to question the wisdom of accommodating dozens of vehicles for events and visitation and for the passage of heavy trucks needed for production and response vehicles needed for emergencies. The narrowness of the driveway, and its steep gradient, is testimony that this access to the site was never intended for commercial and industrial traffic. It is a driveway for a private residential estate.
The findings for the project indicate that the exceptions in road width, road gradient, bridge width, turnout accommodation, are all acceptable because of a fairly elaborate system of electronic and static signs use to direct one-way traffic and to limit road usage in the event of an emergency. Also necessary is the training of employees in how to operate and implement the system.
Can an emergency evacuation really be so predictably choreographed? People fleeing in fear of their lives are unlikely to pay attention to signs. Employees in the midst of a chaotic event may have limited experience, information, time and concentration to implement the optimal evacuation plan. And external events -- a power outage, a stalled vehicle, a downed tree as happened on Soda Canyon Road, may instantly foil any emergency plan.
The findings for the Anthem road exceptions are not a simple as finding the county's RSS's to be an acceptable level of safety, even though those standards proved inadequate in the Atlas fire. In this case, the Board must find that the various exceptions and mitigations -- accommodating a sub-standard road width, accepting a sub-standard road gradient, use of a one-lane bridge, use of an elaborate electronic signage system, the use of staff to make evacuation decisions -- will insure the safety of visitors and staff in an emergency. It is, in fact, taking a leap of faith that all will go as planned in a severe event, and the county will bear some responsibility if things do not go as planned.
As Staff noted in its qualification, it is not just the question of safe ingress and egress that makes this project problematic. There are numerous reasons to question its approval. (Unstated, of course, is the issue at the heart of all projects that eventually end up before you: the impact that tourism -- as opposed to real agriculture -- poses to the quality of life treasured by rural residents.)
But given the increasing frequency of fires, now an inherent part of living and doing business in the county, the issue of fire safety for the general public in the approval of commercial building sites should be of paramount concern. Hopefully, you will begin to revisit your interest in promoting tourism attractions in the fire prone areas of the county. You should start with this project.
3460 Soda Canyon Road