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Sonoma Mt. music festival approved despite protest


A nascent Petaluma folk-music festival is proceeding with its plans for a 10-hour, outdoor musical benefit on July 8, at a rural cattle ranch just outside of city limits, despite an attempt by a concerened Sonoma Valley resident, aided by a pair of Sonoma County open space advocacy organizations to block the event’s county permit.

Claiming that the Sonoma Mountain Music Festival violates restrictions on the kind of events allowed on agricultural property, Teri Shore, with the support of the Sebastopol-based Preserve Rural Sonoma County and the Sonoma-based Wine and Water Watch, filed a challenge to the festival’s use permit on May 30.

Despite the organizations’ request for an appeal of the festival’s permit, accompanied by an eight-page letter listing a variety of objections to the music festival, permission for the event has been granted by Sonoma County’s Permit and Resource Planning Department.

“The permit request meets all of our standards, and has been approved,” said Maggie Fleming, Communication Manager at the Sonoma County Permit and Resource Planning Department.

Asked for comment on whether the formal appeal was considered in this decision, Fleming indicated that improper procedures for filing such appeals, specifically the omission of a $1,000 filing fee, is the primary reason the challenge was not taken under consideration.

“The individuals chose not to pay the fee,” Fleming confirmed.

This will be the still-fledgling folk festival’s second consecutive year at Five Springs Farm, a working ranch located about three-and-a-half miles off of Lakeville Road in Petaluma, on Adobe Road. The 10-hour, day-long event will be headlined by popular folksinger-fiddler Laurie Lewis, plus San Francisco’s Kendra McKinley and the acoustic group American Nomad.

They will be sharing the bill with several other rising folk and country acts, including the band Ismay, whose lead singer is Avery Hellman, the producer of the Sonoma Mountain Music Festival, and the granddaughter of the late financier Warren Hellman, who founded of the renowned Hardly Strictly Bluegrass Festival in San Francisco. Hellman, who uses the stage name Ismay, for which her band is named, lives and works on the Petaluma ranch, which her family purchased six years ago.

A publicist for the festival said that Hellman is currently out of town, and unable to comment upon the attempt to block the festival, which officially launched last year. According to Sonoma County records, Hellman’s zoning permit request for the music event was filed on March 10. In the request’s description of the event, a maximum of 250 festivalgoers will be permitted on the ranch’s 258.14-acre property, with all of the proceeds benefiting Petaluma’s Point Blue Conservation Sciences.

The 52-year-old nonprofit has been active in ecology-based education for 52 years. In the words of the application, the organization, “trains ranchers to do ecological restoration and sustainable ranch management,” adding that the music event will include a nature walk, highlighting how restoration agriculture can simultaneously save native species and pursue sustainable cattle grazing, and that food at the concert will feature jam, beef and produce grown on the farm.

According to the letter filed along with the objecting organizations’ appeal, one of the groups’ reasons for contesting the permit is that the event “does not appear to be held for the main purpose of agricultural education or directly promoting agricultural products or commodities produced on the property, and required by the Uniform Rules governing the Land Conservation Act.”

Often called the Williamson Act, it restricts the use of certain agricultural lands and other open spaces, giving local governments permission to enter into contracts with private landowners, who agree to use the land for farming and agriculture, or to set it aside as open space, in exchange for reduced property taxes.

Five Springs Farm has been the location of a number of events over the last few years. In addition to 2016’s inaugural Sonoma Mountain Festival, the site hosted an Earth Day concert featuring Ramblin’ Jack Elliot, as a benefit for a filmmaker shooting a movie about John Sears, aka Mule, whose been crisscrossing America with his mule pack for 30 years. For two years, the ranch has hosted the NORCAL California High School Mountain Bike State Championships. Other events, including a series of variety shows, are also occasionally presented at Five Springs Farm.

In the wake of the appeal request being turned back, Shore says she plans no further action this year.

“I will continue to bring this kind of thing up in the future,” she said, “as an example of the need to review policies for events on protected land.”

Meanwhile, the Sonoma Mountain Music Festival is moving ahead as organizers announced discount tickets are sold out, with a limited number of general tickets remaining.