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Neighbors worry about proposed Project 8 Winery in Placer County

Dec 18, 2023Dec 18, 2023

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PENRYN, Calif. — Plans for a new winery are upsetting some neighbors in Placer County, with worries including arsenic exposure and noise pollution.

The developer says he has already gone above and beyond in addressing those concerns.

Now, project approval comes down to Placer County supervisors later this month.

Earlier this month, Mike Fournier drove ABC10 around his 175-acre property in the Placer County community of Penryn, giving a tour of the land where he wants to build a winery. His land includes 53 acres for growing grapes plus a vista of the rolling Sierra Foothills, which Fournier showed off by raising us some 50 feet off the ground in his rough terrain scissor lift.

"It's too bad, by the way, that it's hazy today because normally we see the Sutter Butte, Mt. Diablo, Sacramento," he said.

This is where Fournier wants to build Project 8 Winery, also known as Lecavalier Cellars.

His plans for Project 8 include a production facility and wine caves, plus a 75-foot-tall building with a tasting room and fine-dining restaurant offering the panoramic view.

"The topography, the terroir is very good for what we’re doing, and we think that we can do something iconic here," said Fournier.

He says the vast majority of the immediately surrounding neighbors are in support of the project, but there are a group of neighbors who have a list of concerns they say have not been adequately addressed.

A little over three-quarters of a mile away, as the crow flies, is neighbor Patty Neifer's house. She's all for a new vineyard and tasting room in Penryn but she thinks these plans go too far.

"When an 80-foot, gigantic tower is being proposed that would fit more in Las Vegas than it would in Penryn or Newcastle, that's where we draw the line," she said. "With that comes noise pollution, light pollution, everything from the traffic increasing and just changing the whole look of an entire community."

Joining Neifer at her house that afternoon in late May was Gabriele Windgasse. She lives a few miles away but is on the Horseshoe Bar-Penryn Municipal Advisory Council, whose members studied Project 8. She thinks the county hasn't done enough testing for arsenic, a naturally occurring toxic material that — with long-term exposure — can cause cancer and other health issues.

"This is naturally occurring arsenic. It is deep in the ground," she explained. "If there's dust that has arsenic in it, that can be a concern, but also in drinking water."

Windgasse isn't only a neighbor; she's also an expert, with a doctoral degree in public health and is an adjunct assistant professor of environmental health sciences at Columbia University.

She points to soil sample test results in the project's Environmental Impact Report, particularly one result showing a high concentration of arsenic, taken from soil that had been about 20 feet beneath the surface.

"If the surface is low-arsenic but you excavate high-arsenic soil and then place it as fill on top, you have created a public health hazard. So my question has been for many months now: What about the fill material? What is the concentration of the fill material? Where were these 20 feet of excavated soil placed?" she questioned. "What is the potential concern for the workers who work there during the construction, the workers who work there during the operation, the visitors and the neighbors?"

Just down the road from Neifer's house is where Janet Kellman lives.

"I'm able to speak about what arsenic can do," she said.

Kellman and her husband have lived in Penryn for 42 years, and just five years ago learned their drinking water had high levels of arsenic. The couple has since been diagnosed with cancer, which they believe is linked to the arsenic. She, like Windgasse, is concerned about potential arsenic levels in the fill material at Project 8 Winery.

"I'm really not thinking so much about the people that come and have a lovely glass of wine and dinner and all of that. I'm thinking about the people that work there. I'm thinking about the people that live around there, where the land is going to be disturbed in such a way that we do not know what will be released from the rock and into the air," she said. "I just feel it's too big of a project for this area."

ABC10 took these women's questions to Fournier, who acknowledged the arsenic that's present in the soil throughout Placer County.

"Ultimately, when in doubt, do the right thing. Do what's safe for people, and that's what we intend to do," he said.

He pointed to additional arsenic testing that his company paid for, above and beyond the requirements.

"We got results that came back very favorable, showing that it was more of an anomaly, the level that we got on that one test pit. That having been said, we even went further. We went, over the winter, we took the runoff water and we had it analyzed to make sure there was no arsenic leaching off the site," said Fournier. "Plus, we will do more. You know, we're going to do a soil management plan, we're going to do a dust monitoring plan. Ultimately, we don't want our employees exposed to arsenic."

He said they’ll continue testing during construction - and that much of the fill material will be capped with a road and the pad for a building.

"The reality is, there's a lot of arsenic in Placer County, and this is not a negative thing. It's just the reality," said Fournier. "We're going to do it right. We've capped it right in the past. We will cap it right in the future. If we discover more that is material, then we will do what the agencies require us to do."

Neifer, Windgasse and Kellman say Fournier's answers don't satisfy their concerns. Windgasse points out what she says are flaws in the secondary testing Fournier's company paid for.

"In this report, it says very clearly that each and every sample of those was received outside of the EPA-recommended holding time. That means the samples were analyzed when they were too old to be analyzed for arsenic. This data is not acceptable to investigate the arsenic and subsoil concern," she said, adding, "I'm not convinced that these five soil cores represent the areas where they will take out fill, so they will excavate many other areas for which we have no idea what is the arsenic concentration there."

Fournier said he believes the results of the second test are still sound.

"The reality is, was the testing done exactly? No, because we had previously done the boring, but we added the soil samples," he said. "Let's be realistic: arsenic is not like a solvent. It's not like acetone or gasoline; it doesn't just evaporate out of the sample. We consulted our expert; they said, ‘This will give you a really good yardstick. It will give you a good reference. Are you going into a toxic supersite? Or are you having something that will be easily manageable with best practices?’"

As for concerns over light pollution, Fournier said he hired a lighting designer to ensure the lights in the tasting room point downward or inward and don't shine out.

Regarding noise pollution, he assures neighbors the tasting room and restaurant would be enclosed with thick windows and no balcony – only an emergency staircase.

For traffic, he says map apps will take most visitors on the short, quick, well-paved route just minutes from I-80 – along Taylor Road and westbound on Callison Road – and not through the more winding, rural roads of Penryn – eastbound on Callison Road to the winery. Furthermore, he added, his company plans on paying for the creation of a left-turn lane on the currently-two-lane Taylor Road, for drivers turning onto Callison Road, toward Project 8.

Fournier said some of these and other changes have come from meetings with neighbors in the area more immediately surrounding his property.

However, neighbors who still have concerns say they have heard all these answers before, hashing out the conversation in public meetings, and are not satisfied. Windgasse's letters, and the county's responses thereto, are on pages 338-350 HERE.

The Placer County Planning Commission green-lighted the project in April, sending it to county supervisors for a final vote, including the adoption of a zoning text amendment with modifications, such as limiting the height exceptions to large wineries over 20 acres producing more than 20,000 cases per year. Supervisors could choose to approve it outright or pause the process to request more information or changes.

The proposed octagon building, which is 29,250 square feet, has multiple levels, including one proposed underground and five above-ground.

Several people spoke at the planning commission meeting, both in favor of the project and with concerns about the project — including about the height of the tower, the ability of fire crews to respond to an emergency at the location and noise concerns, among others. The public comments lasted for more than two and a half hours.

If his project is approved, Fournier said he’d like to break ground next year, with the first phase opening sometime in the spring of 2025. The winery would be located at 7615 Callison Road in Penryn.

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