Long-languishing resort near Guerneville appears headed for approval

February 27, 2023

This is a project I have been following and first heard of about 10 years ago. Whenever I am out with my clients in this area I point over at the once very popular beach spot and tell them one day there may or may not be a large spa and hotel there. It seems like we are getting closer and closer to this becoming an actuality. I will continue to follow this story and will update you all on any new developments!


The controversial 108-room resort just west of Guerneville is envisioned as a boutique Wine Country hotel in the redwoods.

Long-languishing plans for a sleek new riverfront resort just west of Guerneville appear finally to be reaching the finish line, with key approvals expected as early as next month on a proposal that has been refined by years of public review.

Envisioned as a boutique Wine Country hotel with meeting rooms, 108 guest rooms and suites in two three-story buildings and four smaller, detached structures, The Lodge on Russian River would be constructed at the historic site of the Guernewood Park Resort, a popular summer getaway for San Franciscans and others beginning in the 1920s.

It could open in two years if developers win the OK from the Sonoma County Board of Zoning Adjustments at a hearing tentatively scheduled for March 23, said Doug Demers, Seattle-based senior managing principal at B+J Advance Strategy and design lead on the project.

The proposal has been downsized slightly since it was last considered by the board in October — the main hotel buildings have been reduced by one floor, and the total room count was cut from 120.

Still, the lodge would dwarf other hotels and resorts in the lower Russian River corridor, most of which can accommodate a quarter or a third as many guests, or even fewer.

A “mega hotel” has some critics concerned about the impact on natural and biological resources, especially water, and, on any evacuations that may be necessary due to wildfire or other emergencies in the future.

“It’s a little scary when we only have one way to get in and out of here,” said Orny Wilcox, a 35-year resident of Guernewood Park, a hillside community whose narrow, winding roads all lead to Highway 116 across from the lodge property, in part because of mudslides and bridge damage that make back roads unusable.

“The county has never fixed any of those evacuation routes, and now you have about 2,000 people funneling into that same roadway. There’s no way that anybody would get out of here alive if there were a fire,” with a project so large, he said.

“There are some people,” said another critic, 50-year resident Chris Christopher, “who think getting this hotel in is what people desperately need — a financial, economic uplift.”

But with its own on-site restaurant and bar and seasonal hospitality jobs that still leave people struggling to find housing, “I think it’s going to taper the businesses off in Guerneville,” Christopher said.

Demers said the mission remains to create something that is positive for the community while penciling out financially for partners who are investing some $30 million to $40 million in the project.

He and other partners said the conceptual designs have been modified to accommodate local interest in lower buildings profiles (building heights have dropped from 53 feet to 35 feet in the latest proposal). In addition, the buildings would be set back in the tree line and built on piles to avoid harm to redwood tree roots. They would also be built on long-established fill that raises the site above the 100-year flood plain.

They say steel and fire-resilient construction also would make the resort a potential, temporary refuge for emergency service personnel and even residents in the event of wildfire.

Proponents also say there are misconceptions of the resort as a convention center when the meeting rooms more likely would be booked for weddings, retreats, bar mitzvahs and the like with a maximum 275 guests beyond those staying in the hotel’s 108 suites and rooms.

The project, Demer said, “wants to be appropriate. It wants to be sustainable. It wants to be an important part of the community.”

Local real estate agent Debra Johnson, long active in the business and nonprofit sector, said she’s been in favor of the project “since Day One.”

“I think it’s going to be wonderful for our town,” she said. “A handful of us have roots here, but the majority of us came here on vacation.”

“We’re a funny little group of people,” Johnson said. “Any time there’s change, we have to get through hell and a million meetings, and then, when it happens and we look back, it ends up being a very positive thing.”

First proposed in 2008 by Sonoma County hotelier Kirk Lok, the lodging project was suspended due to the global recession at that time. The resort would be located between the river and Highway 116, less than a mile west of town. It would be bordered by Dubrava Village condominiums on the west and Guernewood Road and Hulbert Creek on the east. Guernewood Park is across the highway and the seasonal Summer Crossing over the river is just upstream.

The new resort would be the first commercial use of the site since a fire in the 1970s destroyed the last vestiges of the original resort — though some foundation work and chimneys remain. The site now has close to 10 acres filled with redwood trees, an open field and trails to a sheltered beach open for public use.

A hotel had been proposed at the time the condominiums were developed in the 1980s, and when Lok and his family purchased the land in 1998, they also envisioned a resort, spa and restaurant, so what’s proposed now has been “20 years in the making,” he said.

“I think it’s a very positive course we’ve been on for the last 20 years, going through several iterations. It’s at least three major designs,” he said.

After several starts and stops, he’s worked for most of the last decade with Demers, whose wife’s family has since 1932 had a vacation house at Odd Fellows Russian River Park east of Guerneville.

Demers brought in partners Gateway Capital and Noble House Hotels & Resorts, which will operate The Lodge.

After finding new momentum in 2018, the project has been working its way through Permit Sonoma, reaching a hearing last fall that resulted in some changes that remain insufficient for critics.

But the project has generally earned mixed reviews in the unincorporated community of Guerneville, population around 4,700.

Mags Van Der Veen, general manager at boon food + drink and partner/manager at BROT restaurant, both on Main Street, said being in business means wanting customers to come to town, but there are legitimate concerns about too large an influx, given the constraints of the highway. She said part of the opposition may just be that the site has been vacant so long, and some thought it might never be developed.

“I don’t’know whether I’m for it or against it either, but we should develop more here,” Van Der Veen said. “We just have to strike a balance as to how that’s done. I’m not sure that’s with 100 rooms.”

Longtime resident Robert Tucker said he’s worried about guests going to and from the restaurants and bars in town and the resort, given narrow, crumbled highway shoulders that make walking unsafe. The potential for drinking and driving gives him pause.

But it’s the problem with fires and evacuations “that might actually stop the project,” given how hard folks were “hammering” on it.

During last fall’s circulation of the Proposed Mitigated Negative Declaration for the project, the California Department of Fish and Wildlife weighed in with requirements to check for vulnerable species and take specific actions for any signs they were in the project vicinity, notably Northern Spotted Owls, which have nested in the area, and several reptile species.

Resulting changes to the environmental document required it be recirculated for public comment before the next Board of Zoning Adjustments meeting next month.

TheLodgeOnRussianRiverMND.pdf

It will remain in circulation and open for public comment until March 6.

Comments can be sent to Georgia McDaniel at Georgia.McDaniel@sonoma-county.org or Permit Sonoma, 2550 Ventura Ave., Santa Rosa, CA 95403.

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