REALTOR Tom Fendley standing on a piece of open land in Sonoma County, California

© Edward Caldwell

REALTOR® Tom Fendley is fighting to keep overdevelopment from destroying the natural beauty of Sonoma County, Calif.

How Overdevelopment Dries Up Resources

In drought-stricken California, one real estate pro's backlash against aggressive development has helped to establish common ground with clients and the community.

Though Tom Fendley is proud that some of the best chardonnays in the world hail from his backyard, he's not blind to the toll that Sonoma County's wineries are taking on drought-stricken California. The 400-plus area wineries use more than a billion gallons of water annually, even as the state imposed water restrictions in January 2015 to cope with its driest four years on record at the time. But conservation in Wine Country falls squarely on home owners because agricultural enterprises such as vineyards are largely exempt from the state's orders.

Even so, developers are pushing for another winery, which would be among the largest in the county under its current proposal. Fendley says if the project is given a green light, the water supply available to residents could be further depleted.

The proposed Dairyman Winery and Distillery would go beyond what its name suggests. Plans call for an 87,000-square-foot tourist attraction that includes an event center with a capacity of 600 people. In addition to the facility's impact on the water supply—some estimate the project alone would use up to 1 billion gallons a year—opponents say the 58 annual events Dairyman plans to host would bring traffic gridlock and endanger users of a popular nearby trail. Fendley, a real estate professional with Vanguard Properties in Sebastopol, Calif., believes the proposal is the latest example of overdevelopment threatening to turn the rural oasis of Sonoma County into an industrial nightmare. And he is part of a mission to stop it.

"One of the reasons people live in Sonoma County is for its rural character," Fendley says. They pay for all that nature. The area commanded a median home price of $566,000 in May. "The landscape is a big part of what gives the county its value. How many wineries do we need? It’s obviously the wrong-sized project in the wrong place."

As community backlash against Dairyman exploded over the past year, Fendley began volunteering in February with the environmental group Preserve Rural Sonoma County, a primary opponent of the project. PRSC hopes to convince the county to reject the proposal. Having previously worked as an environmental consultant, Fendley helps the group fundraise and widen public awareness through targeted marketing. Scores of residents, environmental scientists, and former county officials have rallied with PRSC at public hearings, and local officials have responded. The Sebastopol City Council, which has jurisdiction over the unincorporated land that includes the site, unanimously voted against Dairyman earlier this year. The Sonoma County Board of Supervisors, which has ultimate authority over the use of the land, is still debating the proposal.

Fendley's volunteer efforts have also raised his profile in the community. Home buyers who come to Sonoma County tend to be environmentally conscious, he says, and his involvement in local issues helps him establish common ground with clients. "Most people care deeply about at least a couple of environmental or preservation issues, and I think they like the idea of working with someone who shares their concerns," Fendley says. "I've gotten business because of my beliefs and actions."

Joe Wagner, the vintner whose company, Belle Glos, is behind Dairyman, hasn't ignored the community's outrage. He says he's working on an amended proposal to make the facility more efficient. It would include increasing water recycling, composting solid waste, and reducing the number of water tanks.

But Wagner says the public has been misinformed about Dairyman's water usage because of conflicting information about the amount of water required to produce wine, with estimates running as high as 30 gallons per glass. He says the industry standard is six gallons of water per gallon of wine but claims Dairyman will cut production requirements to two gallons. He also says opponents are overstating the winery's visual intrusion on the natural landscape.

"We're not taking native habitat and converting it to something that looks like a castle," Wagner says. "The architecture we're looking at doing has a less intrusive, agrarian feel. We're taking land that has been given up on and repurposing it for something that's more conducive for our business, and the local economy thrives on it."

Fendley says he supports the wine industry and what it brings to Sonoma County—more than $140 million in tourism taxes last year—but its expansion shouldn't come at the expense of the environment. "Property owners have an obligation to the community around them to maintain a quality of life," he says. "There's plenty of value in our properties here because we've done a very good job historically of protecting our environment, and it's important that we continue to do that."

Graham Wood
Executive Editor of Digital Media

Graham Wood is Executive Editor of Digital Media for REALTOR® Magazine. He can be reached at