Dahvie James sits on a chair in the living room of the main building in the Field & Pond bed and breakfast. The 100-year-old building is decorated in period-specific decor. Isolated from other residents, quiet and tranquil nestled against the eastern edge of the coast range just north of Winters, it is difficult to imagine that this facility has been the subject of a bitter land use dispute that has gone through the County Planning Commission and will now go to the Board of Supervisors.
The process began in January of 2014, Mr. James tells the Vanguard, when the property was allowed eight annual events and the county was welcoming of agritourism. Now, more than two years later, what Mr. James believes should have cost $2700 in administrative fees has resulted in more than $60,000 in costs for the planning staff to process the application, with a rejection at the County Planning Commission which now is leading the project to get decided by the County Board of Supervisors.
Dahvie Jones, a graduate of UC Davis, and his husband Dr. Phil Watts, an Australian who practices as a veterinarian in the Bay Area, came upon Yolo County as a vet and marketer, not as developers.
They found the spot where Field & Pond would be and saw a need in the county for agritourism. But, while the county was receptive at first, their neighbors became increasingly oppositional and, in their mind, hostile to the bed and breakfast and, in particular, its desire to have 20 wedding events a year.
Mr. James describes that they were told by the county that this was a welcomed activity. Under the General Plan, the zoning was changed from AI to Ag Extensive, as the property is not on prime ag land. That means that if the property is over 40 acres, it automatically comes with by-right entitlement for eight events.
He told the Vanguard, “The present code allows for an unlimited number of events that are non-paid or not for profit. It also allows for an unlimited engagement in vacation renting. In theory, with the existing code, anyone could run a lodging facility with unlimited events.”
“We have tried to go through the county’s legal process for getting a use permit to conduct these activities, which ensures that we not only have met all county legal codes, but also that the county gets the benefit of business tax dollars over the longer term,” he said.
“Before we purchased the property, we met with County Planning as part of our due diligence, to determine whether we could operate our intended business at that location,” he explained.
County staff advised them that: “1) our property was just rezoned to ‘Ag Extensive’ because it was not prime farm land, and it would lend itself to a more ag-commercial use, 2) this rezoning would give the property a basis of entitlement for 8 events, Bed & Breakfast and Farm-Stay operations, 3) a minor Use permit would afford it (Unlimited) ‘Events’, as well as a larger Bed & Breakfast room capacity, and 4) our project proposal, which was very similar to Park Winters, would likely be a great fit for the area, based on the County’s General Plan which ‘encourages agritourism.’”
When they initially talked to their neighbors, it seemed like things were going well. And then suddenly, Mr. James says, “The wheels came off.”
Dahvie James told the Vanguard, “Since we have started this process in applying for our Use Permit, we have endured constant harassment characterized as ‘drive-bys’ of our home throughout all hours of the night, trespassing, public slander, and even direct sabotage of our business operations; these people have run off contractors who were working with us, they’ve even talked with our clients.”
While his neighbors, primarily the prominent Rominger family, Bruce and Robyn Rominger, have couched their concerns in land use issues such as protection of agricultural land as well as safety and access concerns, Mr. James believes that they have other motivations.
In a letter, he writes, “Since the submission of our Use Permit application, our opponents, including Robyn, Bruce and Patty Rominger, have made a deliberate and concerted effort to convolute facts regarding our application scope and event operations. Further, as one of the most blatant examples, they have continually and publicly made all sorts of declarations about our intentions, integrity, capabilities, family, and even lineage; and in most cases, they’ve attempted to criminalize and shame us for actions that they themselves have taken, and have openly approved of with other properties in the area.”
The Perspective of the Neighbors
For neighbors down the road, long-time farmers Bruce and Robyn Rominger see Field & Pond as a threat to their farming operation with issues of road safety, environmental concerns and other issues foremost on their mind.
“Field & Pond will interfere with our farming operation,” Robyn Rominger told the Vanguard.
They cited the findings of the County Planning Commission which listened to a lot of testimony before denying the application. The hearing, on August 11 in Woodland, saw the commission vote 3 to 1 to deny the use permit for the proposed event center and B&B.
From their perspective, safety considerations are a crucial part of their objection. They argue that the road goes down to a single-lane with sharp, blind turns. Bruce Rominger told the Vanguard, “We move a lot of equipment on it.” These include farming equipment and cattle trucks. “You end up with an event center with a lot of people coming here for the first time. They’re not familiar with the road. They are not necessarily familiar with driving in agricultural areas and it becomes a hazard.”
There have been two fatalities on the unlit, uneven road in the last 12 years. They are particularly concerned with drinking late at night after weddings have ended. Bruce Rominger said, “You get an unfamiliar driver, especially after he’s been drinking…”
Robyn Rominger noted that there is a fire danger here with limited access in and out of the property. If they have a party with hundreds of people and a fire breaks out – she fears panic and road congestion.
Fire is not a theoretical concern. Three times in last few years, a nearby housing development has been evacuated due to fire. There have been at least two major fires at Berryessa and the road has been used by emergency vehicles as a staging area.
In an attempt to deal with this anticipated problem, the owners of Field & Pond have proposed using a shuttle bus to take wedding parties with over 150 attendees in and out – in theory, avoiding this problem for some events. But, for the Romingers, that’s insufficient.
Bruce Rominger responded that the shuttle bus idea has been brought up a lot in these discussions. “The reality is that it doesn’t work very well and other event centers that we’ve talked to said they’ve tried that,” he said. “One of them just gave up because you can’t force people to use the shuttle.” Instead, he said, “people will just go straight to the site. They don’t want to be tied to the bus’s schedule.” He also noted that the size of the bus, which they described as “Greyhound bus size” would make it difficult for tomato trucks to pass by.
Joe Rominger said that when he does tomato harvest, he has 700 acres to harvest and that makes for several hundred truck trips during harvest times.
The owners of Field & Pond suggested that they might be able to schedule their events when the harvest is not occurring. Bruce Rominger responded, “There are issues like that that can be partially mitigated, but you’re going to end up with no parties in July, August, September and October.” He noted that planting and harvesting occur March through November. “No practical mitigation measures have been brought forward by either side nor the county.”
Zoning regulations are designed to prevent land-use problems, they said, and non-agricultural uses in the county’s rural areas need to be compatible with agriculture.
“A compatible use must be incidental to the commercial production of agricultural commodities, not the other way around as is the case with this project,” said John Gamper, California Farm Bureau Federation director of taxation and land use. “The primary use of this project is essentially an outdoor party venue that will be operated from approximately noon to midnight during the busiest times of the year for nearby agricultural operations. The attempts by the applicants to pursue some agricultural uses on the small usable area are incidental to the event center and therefore illegal.”
While they laid out concerns about non-compatible agricultural activities and the need to preserve local farmland, they said many of their concerns are site specific and that other rural event centers in the county–like Park Winters, which has multiple access points–were less concerning. They noted that Field & Pond–unlike other rural event centers in the county–has only one substandard access road with one way in and one way out, creating traffic hazards and health and safety risks in case of fire.
Bill Chapman, who owns the cattle ranch at the end of County Road 29, said, “If I want to open a bar and event center within the City of Davis, to be located in a second-story building to serve 150-plus attendees, how many fire exits will be required by code? Why would rural event centers be exempt?”
They also pointed to concerns about 500-foot spray buffers. The Field & Pond site does not have enough space for 500-foot-wide pesticide spray buffers that protect their guests. The only place for spray buffers is on the adjacent farmer’s property, and that would be a negative impact on agriculture because the farmer could not protect his crops, resulting in lower yields. The manager of the walnut orchard across the road testified at the planning commission hearing that 25 percent of his walnut crop is at risk because of the spray issue, which is a considerable loss.
Dahvie James’ Response to the Neighbors
Dahvie James questions how Field & Pond will interfere with the farming operations of his neighbors, who are a whole mile away. He told the Vanguard, “All events are held on weekends; predominantly Saturdays, during the hours of 3 p.m. to 10 p.m., in where there are typically no farming operations occurring on the road.”
He claims, “Since hosting events in 2016, all events have used shuttles without exception, in order to bring guests to and from the venue. This has resulted in less than 35 cars, even for the largest wedding, but it typically results in ~20 cars, which would include vendor vehicles.”
“We have acknowledged the Rominger concerns about ‘potential interferences’ with their farming operations,” he explained. “However, our position is that like any cooperative business environment in where there is a mutual interest in the betterment of the total community, the businesses should be able to come together, communicate and devise ways to avoid disruptions to the respective operations, so that there is a collective win.”
Dahvie James also disputes the impassibility of the roads, noting that the point at which the road transitions toward a single lane is past the point of the Rominger’s farming operations.
He disputes the notion that “urban drivers will be prone to drive unsafely in an unfamiliar rural area.” He instead argues that “our evidence and observation would suggest the complete opposite. When drivers are ‘coming here for the first time,’ they will be inclined to drive even more slowly and safely, simply because they don’t know where they are going.”
Nevertheless, they say that “we have used shuttles without fail, for every 2016 event. This is not something that we necessarily have to mandate either. Our clients generally prefer the option of shuttles, so that their guests can enjoy themselves to the fullest, and avoid factors such as driving under the influence, getting lost, or even feeling a need to leave the celebration early.”
Dahvie James also disagrees with the neighbors’ assessment of the need for multiple access points. He told the Vanguard, “The concern about multiple access points is only one shared by the Romingers, not law enforcement or fire officials.”
Instead, he believes there is little different between this operation and Park Winters. He said that “the reality is that there is very little difference between the nature of our operations, and benefits to the community, and Park Winters. We actually represent a much smaller footprint in terms of events and lodging. We are more isolated from neighbors. We are also not building new structures. We are much further away from intensive farming operations.”
He adds, “Like Park Winters, we are responsible for directly funneling a great deal of business and commerce to downtown restaurants and lodging.”
Is there a peaceful resolution to this ongoing dispute? Mr. James said that he hopes to find a solution that accommodates his neighbors’ concerns, but allows his events to continue. For the Romingers, they simply believe this is the wrong location for a large-scale wedding event center.
—David M. Greenwald reporting