By PAUL PAYNE
THE PRESS DEMOCRAT
A long-running land battle between a winemaker and his irksome neighbor has escalated into Sebastopol-area ire over the clear-cutting of 8 acres along Gravenstein Highway.
The neighbor, political gadfly John Jenkel, said that within days of an auction in which part of his ranch was sold to Paul Hobbs Winery to satisfy part of a $350,000 judgment, Hobbs dispatched tree-cutters and heavy equipment operators to prepare the land for grapes.
What was once a scenic horse pasture lined with redwoods planted by his sons more than 30 years ago was stripped of all natural beauty, Jenkel said.
“It’s a desecration,” said Jenkel, 72, as he watched a bright yellow skip-loader rumble between piles of debris last week.
He’s not the only one upset. Locals are fuming about the denuded property, which Hobbs obtained for a fraction of its assessed value in three sheriff’s auctions. It is highly visible on the road from Graton to Forestville.
Some honked or yelled epithets out their car windows as they drove by. Even people who said they disagree with Jenkel’s in-your-face style found themselves sympathizing with the eccentric man.
“This is breaking my heart,” said Sebastopol pig farmer Al Mathers, who stopped her pickup on the side of the road to talk to Jenkel. “It’s nothing but meanness. This is rape.”
Others faulted the legal system. At the Willow Wood Market in Graton, barista Kelly Siemon questioned how a judge could allow it to happen.
“The whole thing just seems so wrong,” Siemon said.
Hobbs, who founded his winery in 1991, said he didn’t relish the idea of removing trees but defended it as necessary for planting a pinot noir vineyard.
He acquired the land for a combined $61,000 after years of frustrating legal action against Jenkel for destroying a stand of fir with excessive runoff. Hundreds of thousands of dollars more was spent on cleanup and paying off old liens, Hobbs said.
He said he obtained necessary county permits before beginning the work and has planted dozens of new trees to replace old ones.
He denied taking advantage of Jenkel, saying he would transform a “junkyard” littered with abandoned cars and ramshackle buildings into a community asset.
“None of this would have happened if he hadn’t killed our trees,” Hobbs said. “One of the trees fell on our winery. It was not a minor thing. We went through a lot of trouble with our neighbor.”
In a 2009 ruling, Judge Dean Beaupre agreed, calling Jenkel “unrepentant” after illegally dumping water on Hobbs’ grove. He accused Jenkel of making false claims and wasting court time. Another judge awarded damages, which Jenkel refused to pay.
“His actions have been a nightmare for the Hobbs Winery,” Beaupre wrote.
But Jenkel supporters said his behavior doesn’t justify what happened. A local web site buzzed with the developments. Subscribers of WaccooBB.net posted pictures of downed timber and urged people to call elected officials to do something about it.
Some labeled Jenkel’s plight elder financial abuse or railed about the emerging monoculture of vineyards. Others pressed for a boycott of Hobbs’ wine.
“Words cannot express my outrage at this typical vineyard tactic,” one online poster said. “The beginning salvo: chop everything down.”
Supervisor Efren Carrillo, whose 5th district includes the west county area, said he’s received from 20 to 30 calls or emails about the clearing, which is permissible because the land is zoned for agriculture.
However, Carrillo said the destruction of trees was “ill-advised” and could have been handled differently by moving some of them. He said the project, coupled with Hobbs’ separate timber-clearing operation in Pocket Canyon, shows disregard for “a good working relationship” with local officials.
“When you combine both projects, it does not demonstrate good will in the community,” Carrillo said.
Meanwhile, Jenkel is clinging to his remaining seven acres, despite still owing Hobbs more than $300,000. He vowed court action to set aside the initial judgment.
But whether that could happen is unclear. He said he won’t hire a lawyer because he doesn’t trust them.
“I want my land back,” Jenkel said.