By CLARK MASON
THE PRESS DEMOCRAT
A judge on Tuesday cleared the way for Saggio Hills to proceed, delivering a victory to the City of Healdsburg and developers of the proposed luxury resort and housing on the city’s northern fringe.
Sonoma Superior Court Judge Rene Chouteau ruled that proponents of the $310 million project had addressed the deficiencies in the environmental report for the 130-room “world class” resort and 70 high-end homes.
“This is one big, big hurdle,” said Healdsburg Vice-Mayor Gary Plass. “It’s good news. I’m excited for the community of Healdsburg.”
“We can go forward now and put into place what we already had in place,” he added.
But ground apparently will not be broken soon. Developer Robert S. Green, the developer and Saggio Hills applicant who has been behind several Four Seasons luxury resort projects, has been unwilling to predict when work would begin on the project.
He did not return calls Tuesday, but stated earlier this year the hotel and housing market will have to recover first.
Opponents of Saggio Hills were unsuccessful in their argument that the environmental study was still deficient after another judge in 2009 said it was flawed.
They claimed it did not reduce the visibility of the hillside homes from nearby Fox Pond, an open space preserve, and the city improperly rejected scaled-down versions of Saggio Hills with fewer impacts.
“The record indicates that views from Fox Pond already include substantial development. The proposed new structures will not materially add to this impact,” he stated.
The judge also agreed with the city and developers Sonoma Luxury Resort LLC that its analysis of alternative projects was adequate and “none of the alternatives would substantially lessen the significant environmental effects of the project.”
Chouteau’s ruling was only tentative, but will quickly become final, since Saggio Hill opponents decided to drop their arguments against it.
City officials viewed that as a positive sign that Healdsburg Citizens for Sustainable Solutions, the group that brought the lawsuit, will end its legal battle.
But Rachel Mansfield-Howlett, the attorney for the group, said it was too early to say whether her clients would appeal to a higher court.
“We have 60 days to decide whether to appeal,” she said.
As a result of Tuesday’s ruling, city officials say they expect to get a clearer timeline for construction on Saggio Hills.
Plass said the resort probably would be operating by now, if not for the lawsuit against it “by such a small group of people.”
“It would have meant a tremendous boost in revenues for the city of Healdsburg,” he said. “We’ve lost millions.”
Plass said a large public park that was part of Saggio Hills also has been delayed. “Theoretically we could have kids out there playing soccer now, enjoying open space and trails open to the public.”
Mansfield—Howlett disputed that Tuesday, saying the developers could have gone forward between the time the lawsuit was filed and almost a year before a judge agreed the environmental study needed more work.
“At the time we filed the lawsuit is when the recession hit,” she said.
She maintained that the delay for Saggio Hills was not due to the lawsuit, but “more about the nature of the luxury resort and the economy.”
Proposed more than eight years ago, Saggio Hills was the subject of more than two dozen public hearings by the Planning Commission and City Council before it was approved by the council on a 3-0 vote in late 2008.
Two council members recused themselves from voting and in the end it was council members Plass, Jim Wood and Mike McGuire — now a county supervisor — who approved Saggio Hills.
Warren Watkins, the retired math teacher who heads up Healdsburg Citizens for Sustainable Solutions, could not be reached Tuesday. Watkins was on a remote property in Mendocino County and unavailable by phone for comment, according to his wife.
Janis Watkins was reluctant to comment Tuesday, other than to say Chouteau was “a very good judge and I think he gave it careful consideration. I think we got the additional environmental review that was needed.”
HCSS has about 100 supporters on its email list, according to Mansfield—Howlett
Judge Robert Boyd initially awarded $758,000 in fees to the group’s attorneys, primarily to Mansfield—Howlett, a specialist in environmental law, and Watkins’ wife, Janis, who is an attorney. But after hearing arguments from the developers and the City of Healdsburg that it was excessive, he cut the amount virtually in half — to $382,000.
In its legal briefs, Watkins’ group describes Saggio Hills as situated “in the pristine oak-studded hills of northern Sonoma County,” constituting “the largest project in Healdsburg’s history, on the last large property remaining within the City’s Urban Growth Boundary.”
Watkins has maintained he was not trying to stop the project, but wanted to see fewer “mega mansions” built.
Developers are proposing 70 resort homes ranging from 3,500 to 6,000 square feet in size, but Watkins argued it would still be profitable with less than half that number.
Developers, however, said that wouldn’t pencil out.
Despite early promises by the developers for low visibility, opponents say 19 large structures would still be seen on the ridgelines from the city’s hillside Fox Pond park.
Attorneys for the city countered that the general plan “does not require the project to be invisible to be found unobtrusive,” and Saggio Hills will not project above the ridgeline, or the top of the tree canopy.
Developer Sonoma Luxury Resort said the court should not further delay the project, “which has been in the development pipeline for more than eight years and ultimately designed to achieve environmental sensitivity while bringing numerous benefits and amenities to the city’s residents and visitors.”
The Saggio Hills site, part of the former Passalacqua Ranch, was eyed for development more than a dozen years ago by Denver developer Don Beauregard, who proposed a spa resort and more than 200 homes.
Five years ago, the current developers acquired the 259 acres. They agreed to donate 14 acres for affordable housing, 38 acres for a community park, a site for a fire substation and almost $6 million to help pay for the various amenities.
Saggio opponents said the city improperly relied on a pre-recession fiscal analysis to justify the project’s benefits.
But Judge Chouteau said “the City properly considered economic benefit, fire protection benefit and recreation benefit of the project.”