A lawsuit challenging the City of Sonoma’s retention of an 18-year use license for the Sonoma Cheese Factory was dismissed this month by the Sonoma County Superior Court, which outlined the legal justification for the prosecution as “flawed and unconvincing”.
Superior Court Judge Arthur A. Wick’s ruling paves the way for the owners of Sonoma’s Best Hospitality Group to operate under a 2004 use permit granted by the city, which allows the building to operate as a ” mall” with up to nine retail tenants, including a deli/restaurant in the 11,420 square foot building on Spain Street.
The Cheese Factory has been one of downtown Sonoma’s most iconic businesses since its Deco-style building was constructed at 2 W. Spain St. in 1945 by co-founder Celso Viviani and his son Pete. The business was purchased in 2020 by Sonoma’s Best, a group of companies owned by real estate investors and developers Ken and Stacy Mattson. At the time of the sale, Sonoma’s Best spokeswoman Karin Rogers told the Index-Tribune “there (were) no significant changes planned for the building.”
The lawsuit was filed in 2019 by a local group calling itself Protect Our Plaza, which challenged the city’s decision to allow the cheese factory to operate under a 2004 use permit, potentially allowing the Spain Street business to grow without environmental scrutiny.
The owners of Cheese Factory at the time, siblings Maria Viviani and Nina Respicio, had announced plans to renovate and expand the business – with an Oxbow Market-style proposal expanding the interior footprint to 25 000 square feet and allowing two tenants of the restaurant to serve 245 indoor seats and 72 outdoor seats. Neighborhood opposition blocked the proposal, and the project was eventually abandoned.
Instead, the owners lobbied the city to reaffirm use of the cheese factory under a 2004 permit, which allows for more limited expansion of its retail capacity. Initially, the Sonoma Planning Commission denied the old permit, but the city council reversed the decision and ruled the 2004 permit valid.
The 2004 permit allows the owner of the Fromagerie to retrofit the building to allow one to nine tenants to occupy the structure to engage in retail activities, according to the city. The permit also allows the operation of a delicatessen/restaurant and an outdoor dining area and barbecue for a maximum of 103 seats.
The lawsuit alleged that the City of Sonoma and the Sonoma City Council were “attempting to ‘shoehorn’ multi-tenant food businesses into a 15-year-old permit for use identified as retail.”
The lawsuit also argued that a CEQA review was necessary because “no environmental review had ever been carried out for the expansion of the cheese factory under the 2004 permit”.
In dismissing the lawsuit, the court ruled that the statute of limitations prohibits any challenge to the 2004 use permit, leaving in limbo the project or the activities of the cheese factory property that are in dispute since no claim for project is currently before the city.
“(The plaintiffs) do not specify which … activities are the subject of this dispute or constitute the ‘project’ at issue, or whether there are other activities,” the court wrote in its motion for judgment.
Sonoma City Council member Madolyn Agrimonti applauded the result.
“I am very pleased that the court has accepted and upheld the city council’s decision,” said Agrimonti, the only current member who was on the council at the time of the 2019 permit decision.
Agrimonti also noted the “excellent legal work” of the city’s attorneys who, thanks to the court’s dismissal of the lawsuit, saved the city “from having to pay hundreds of thousands of dollars to the other party. in attorney’s fees.
In a statement on behalf of Protect Our Plaza, resident David Eichar said there were “fundamental flaws” in the legal basis for the court’s decision.
“We are also disappointed that the Mattsons were rewarded for these mistakes,” Eichar said.
Eichar said POP is currently evaluating its options which could include an appeal of the court’s decision.
Requests for comment from Sonoma’s Best Hospitality Group were not returned at press time.
Email Jason Walsh at [email protected]