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