Sonoma Cheese Factory plans are vague but council OK's 15-year-old use permit

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The Sonoma Cheese Factory was finally given the green light to operate its Plaza-facing deli and shop under its pre-existing 2004 use permit – after a lengthy and contentious process that saw Mayor Amy Harrington scold city staff for allowing 15 years of confusion and contradiction, and a fracture in the 2019 City Council’s so-called “liberal coalition.”

The topic occupied almost two and a half hours of the City Council’s meeting on Monday, June 24, which was but a slice of the travails the family-owned downtown business has endured in the last couple years as they attempted to find a new path forward for the financially struggling operation.

The council’s purpose was to decide the appeal the Viviani family made when the Planning Commission voted against the recertification in February, in part because the Trust did not appear fully forthcoming about their plans for the future, given their association with Oxbow Market developer Steve Carlin, among other factors.

In addition, the Planning Commission recognized that the 2004 permit did not specifically allow a restaurant, and food service has been and will continue to be a feature of the downtown Sonoma location. They urged the Viviani Trust to apply for a new use permit that accurately reflected their current operation as well as future plans.

The City Council also had to grapple with both of those issues, and it paid particular attention to the issue of the non-existent restaurant permit in the ongoing operation of the “deli.”

“The problem with dealing with such an old permit, with none of the participants being present, is that we don’t know what they mean,” said a visibly frustrated Mayor Amy Harrington.

As of December 2018, when the Cheese Factory closed its doors (“until spring,” as they stated at the time, though it remains closed today), the business not only had a sandwich shop but a barbecue (for “pretty solid hamburgers,” as Logan Harvey said), a gelato and espresso station, wine tasting, beer and wine for sale both on-sale and off-sale, as well as retail sales of food items (primarily but not exclusively cheese) and clothing, kitchen goods and other miscellaneous items.

Viviani Trust attorney Alicia Guerra defined these uses as “legal non-conforming” and asserted they were all allowed under the 2004 use permit and other permits the business had accumulated along the way.

The 2004 use permit that the Vivianis were pursuing would, in theory, allow up to nine tenants in the Cheese Factory “shopping center” – one of several terms that might describe the operational model for the business. (The 2004 use permit specified a nine-business limit.)

Harrington attempted to pin down Guerra or the Viviani sisters, both of whom made brief statements at the podium, on what their plans were going forward. “There’s no plan?” the Mayor asked incredulously.

“That’s correct at this time,” responded Guerra.

She added, “We would like confirmation this evening that the 2004 use permit is in effect, then we can build out the nine stalls; if we get a different answer we’ll have to rethink this,” she said. “The idea is to build out Mr. Viviani’s dreams for the Cheese Factory.”

Councilmember Rachel Hundley was particularly analytical, and skeptical, about the 15-year-old use permit and what it did and did not include, questioning the Vivianis’ broad interpretation of it. “If there was something that should have been in this document that wasn’t, then it wasn’t in there.”

Summarized the former mayor and food truck entrepreneur, “I think if something was vested it was a shopping center permit… with a non-conforming deli use that is limited to exactly where it was when the permit was issued.”

Harrington also struggled with validating the Trust’s broad interpretation of the 2004 use permit, and their attempts to extend it to all future businesses at the location that would reflect Pete Viviani’s vision. “It would be much easier if we had an application asking for what you want to do, and then we could allow that,” she told Guerra. “It’s very complicated to take a permit and shoe-horn something else into it.”

Turning to staff, the mayor added, “I hope we never have a hearing like this ever again. I don’t think it’s fair to anyone to try and take something from 15 years ago and figure out what happened. It’s not fair to the council, it’s not fair to the applicant or the staff. This is a very unfortunate situation that we are in today.”

However, voices during the public comment and from the council dais generally favored the Cheese Factory’s arguments, because of the role the business has played in downtown Sonoma’s dining and social life for years. “It’s not just a business, it’s a place where relationships take place,” said Councilmember Madolyn Agrimonti.

“The Sonoma Cheese Factory is just a great asset for Sonoma,” said David Cook, agreeing with city staff’s recommendation to accept the use permit – and thereby overturn the Planning Commission’s denial of it.

If Cook and Agrimonti’s affection for the Cheese Factory trumped any doubts they may have harbored about the permit issue, Harrington’s and Hundley’s skepticism was reflected in their nay votes on the appeal, leaving the deciding vote to first-term Councilmember Logan Harvey.

While the junior councilmember acknowledged the confusion around the use permit’s allowances – and blamed the city for making it confusing for the applicant by loosely allowing restaurant-like uses without permits – he ended up siding with the staff recommendation to endorse the appeal, and the 2004 use permit.

“Not only is the Cheese Factory a wonderful place in town and a really core piece – and I think everybody thinks this, no matter how they vote – but I’m convinced (that) the permit is vested, and this is an allowable use,” Harvey concluded.

Facing an inevitable 3-2 vote to accept the Cheese Factory’s appeal, Harrington asked counsel Jeff Walter about next steps, and the counsel said staff would draft a resolution for the council to consider and finesse at their next meeting, now scheduled for Aug. 5.

The memory and wishes of Pete Viviani were again invoked by the Vivianis following the 3-2 vote in their favor. “We’re thrilled with the decision, and thank the council for listening to us – and we look forward to moving forward soon to fulfill our dad’s vision,” said Nina Viviani Respecio.

Evidently, they got a head start. Over the previous weekend, with the popular NASCAR event at nearby Sonoma Raceway, the two sisters temporarily re-opened the Sonoma Cheese Factory to sell a limited number of pre-made sandwiches.

“We just couldn’t stand not being a part of it,” said Maria Viviani. “And we heard what people thought about us – it was a real shot in the arm.”

It may also have been pre-emptive: According to Storer, had they remained closed for a full year they might have had to start all over again, per the development code, with a new use permit application.

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