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Tree clear-cut sparks vineyard conversion furor

Workers walk past a "Order to Stop Work" sign posted Thursday by county officials to stop the conversion of the old Davis Tree Farm on Vine Hill Road into a vineyard. JOHN BURGESS/PD

By SAM SCOTT
THE PRESS DEMOCRAT

Efren Carrillo, chairman of the Sonoma County Board of Supervisors, has come out swinging against a winemaker with a recent history of controversial tree removals.

The winemaker, Paul Hobbs, in turn says he’s being unfairly pilloried, but he’s facing complications beyond Carrillo’s withering words.

On Thursday, an official from the Sonoma County Agricultural Commissioner’s Office, accompanied by an investigator from the Sonoma County District Attorney’s office, ordered workers at the latest tree removal site to stop work pending an investigation.

“It’s like he’s adding insult to injury here,” Carrillo said on Thursday, even as Hobbs insisted he was being clobbered for doing the right thing.

The latest chapter in the story began Tuesday when Carrillo published a blistering critique of Hobbs in connection with the clear-cutting of a former Christmas tree farm near Sebastopol as well as with two other tree clearings to make room for grapevines.

Carrillo charged that Hobbs, who is under contract to buy the farm, and its current owners skirted regulations by clearing the land for a vineyard without a conversion permit.

“Paul Hobbs has shown a blatant disregard for Sonoma County, its resources, his fellow vintners and community sentiment,” Carrillo wrote on the Sonoma County Gazette website.

“To me, his wines are unpalatable as they carry strong tones of environmental harm with overwhelming notes of arrogance,” Carrillo wrote.

But Hobbs said Thursday that he had been blindsided by a baseless and offensive attack without the chance to address the charges. He doesn’t own the land in question, he said.

“I’m really shocked,” he said. “That’s a defamation of our good reputation and I think there’s been too much of that.”

The heart of the issue is seven acres on Vine Hill Road north of Sebastopol that Hobbs is buying from Del and Elaine Davis.

Both sides of the deal wanted the trees gone. Elaine Davis said Thursday they were concerned about the liability of people sawing down Christmas trees from a site they’ve stopped maintaining since Del Davis’ health declined.

Hobbs, meanwhile, said the land was useful to him only if it was cleared, so he made that a condition of the pending purchase, much like a home buyer might request a seller fix a sink.

A representative with Cal Fire, which regulates timber land, confirmed the tree removal was allowed without a state permit since the trees were not harvested for commercial purposes.

If the deal closes, and if he decides to put in a vineyard, Hobbs said he’s fully aware he’ll then need a conversion permit.

“That’s well known,” he said.

Carrillo conceded that whether the permits were necessary will be a matter for authorities to decide, but he questioned the ethics of removing the trees

“One need not wait for a legal determination before expressing outrage at the insensitivity and environmental depravity of this conduct,” he wrote.

On Thursday, Carrillo repeated his frustration with Hobbs, saying it’s been building from two previous incidents.

“I don’t understand how someone can show such blatant disregard not only to the process but also to our resources and to their fellow grape growers,” he said.

Earlier this year, Hobbs clear-cut eight acres along Gravenstein Highway that he acquired as part of a bitter ongoing lawsuit with his neighbor, political activist John Jenkel, a move that angered even those who felt no love for Jenkel’s gadfly ways.

“There’s strong animosity in the Graton area toward Hobbs and the manner in which he destroyed the scenic corridor in Highway 116,” said Annie O’Connor, whose mother runs a bed-and-breakfast on Vine Hill Road.

Also this year, Hobbs cleared trees on a 10-acre site near Pocket Canyon, east of Guerneville, without needed permits.

Hobbs said he has replanted oaks and other trees along the denuded corridor and made an honest mistake on the Pocket Canyon site after several consultants misjudged the intent of certain regulations.

Still, he has fans. Dan O’Connell, a fellow winemaker who lives across from the old Christmas tree farm, said he was delighted by Hobbs’ plans and by his reputation.

The farm, he said, had been a haven for trouble and he welcomes Hobbs’ arrival.

Carrillo’s anger may soon be the least of Hobbs’ and the Davises’ concerns. Ann Gallagher White, an environmental prosecutor with the Sonoma County District Attorney’s Office, confirmed her office is investigating the property. She would not specify why.

Also, Luis Rivera, assistant executive officer of the North Coast Regional Water Quality Control Board, said his organization is looking into permitting issues related to water run-off at the site. Carrillo said he hopes any violations are pursued.





21 Responses to “Tree clear-cut sparks vineyard conversion furor”

  1. GO says:

    Hobbs also burned at least one structure on that 8 acres he confiscated from Jenkel, when you burn a house it puts out an enormous amount of toxic pollution in the air. I will boycott any and all Hobbs wine products, and suggest readers to do the same. He is out of control.

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  2. Sweet Deal says:

    In the Spring of 2005, Ken Orton had a fatal accident on his tractor due to sediment runoff from an neighboring vineyard. Did Gail Davis under the direction of Commissioner Correia (her best friend) do an investigation on the vineyard for sediment runoff when this occured? Or was there another sweet deal made for her not to do an investigation…. Similar to the one Supervisor Carrillo made for her to be paid her pension, keeping the $20,000 pay out for retirement and being paid her ful salary?

    Thumb up 12 Thumb down 1

  3. FedUp says:

    “And I am sick and tired of vineyards desecrating our oak and redwood woodlands that really are as much a tourist attraction as winetasting.”

    There’s your trouble right there Mockingbird. It’s not _our_ oak and redwood woodlands, it’s theirs. If you have trouble with the concept of private property, perhaps you should find a country where that is not held as a central organizing value.

    Thumb up 14 Thumb down 4

  4. Reality Check says:

    What don’t I get? These were Christmas trees, i.e., trees that were grown to be cut down. Why would one need a permit to do the obvious?

    “To me, his wines are unpalatable as they carry strong tones of environmental harm . . . ”

    What does that mean? It’s . . . . well, I can’t say what it is on this forum.

    Besides, he isn’t planting grapes; the current owner is removing Christmas trees.

    One may not be able to fool all the people all time, but in Sonoma County it’s not hard to fool most the people.

    Thumb up 12 Thumb down 5

  5. Sweet Deal says:

    Does Supervisor Carrillo really have a degree in environmental economics? Whey did he vote to support the Dutra Asphalt Plant and support Hobbs taking of Jenkel’s land for pennies on the dollar?

    He also hired back Gail Davis with many perks that the tax payers may not be aware of. She retired 8 months ago with a pension of $78,000, a voluntary retiement package of $20,000. Now she is working in the Agricultural Commissioner’s office with full salary, still taking a pension and she was able to keep her $20,000 pay out. Sweet Deal! How many other retirees have been able to benefit like this at the expense of the taxpayers under the premise of “saving cost”.

    Thumb up 19 Thumb down 2

  6. common sense says:

    What’s the matter Efrin? Hobbs didn’t contribute to your campain ? I thought the wine industry could do whatever they want to with out any problems.They are ripping out native trees all over the place and planting vines and that seems to be o.k.

    Thumb up 14 Thumb down 4

  7. john says:

    Efren Carrillo you are part of the problem with Sonoma County, take your sick liberal agenda and leave. It is people like you that continually desecrate America into a human cesspool of no good for nothing freeloaders. To attack a private landowner over removal of trees that aren’t native let alone protected is a waste of our taxpayer dollars. I suspect that when the land owner or buyer gives a ridiculous amount of money to some liberal base program, the basis of your nutcase claim will go away, you’re disgusting.

    Thumb up 21 Thumb down 11

  8. JAD says:

    This issue is not about a christmas tree farm being cut down for a vineyard project. The issue is that there is a process to go through and permits to be obtained. Paul Hobbs seems to think that the regulations do not apply to him………this has been his pattern time and time again. Some of the permits required are to assure that the vineyard project does not harm the environment. I am happy that some of my tax dollars support county staff who make sure that there is a balance between agriculture and the environment.

    Thumb up 15 Thumb down 12

  9. Steveguy says:

    This Hobbs guy seems to be a bit shady, however what if the Xmas tree lot were cleared in order to put in an apple orchard ?

    Thumb up 15 Thumb down 6

  10. Joseph says:

    The price of every property in Sonoma county should be appraised at the selling price of the Jenkel property. The tax role needs to be reduced accordingly to the new lower accessment. It would be the fair and just action for the taxpayers of Sonoma County

    Thumb up 20 Thumb down 3

  11. truth in news says:

    This is just one more grab at the citizens rights. Look at the money Brown and his like are funneling away from the tax payers towards illegals. Now one of his type, Effren, is looking to tell an owner what he can do with his land. Shameful! Maybe this will wake up voters and we can swing in some people with AMERICA and her values into office!

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  12. @Morabito says:

    The County and Efren had nothing to do with the Jenkel fiasco…to pin that on them is not informed. The Courts ordered the judgement against Jenkel, who refused to hire legal representation to defend him…

    Thumb up 14 Thumb down 22

  13. MMS says:

    “To me, his wines are unpalatable as they carry strong tones of environmental harm with overwhelming notes of arrogance,” says Carrillo.

    Ah the odor of hypocrisy! And Carrillo wreaks of it! So Efren where were these feelings when you voted to throw Petaluma residents under the bus for Dutra’s asphalt plant despite “strong animosity” in the community, numerous acknowledged environmental impacts, and torturing the General Plan to make it fit the project?

    I’ll be funding your challenger soon enough.

    Thumb up 35 Thumb down 6

  14. Dave Madigan says:

    Vineyards are bad according the enviro-whackos.

    OK

    Let’s replace the old tree farm with a medical marijuana plantation. I bet they would be all for that!

    Thumb up 23 Thumb down 12

  15. bear says:

    What part of “follow the rules” do you folks not understand? There really are water and erosion issues for neighbors.

    But this has happened legally all over the county for decades. So it looks like a pointless arrogance battle.

    Maybe the fines will help the county budget?

    Thumb up 18 Thumb down 7

  16. Greg Karraker says:

    This land’s not your land
    This land is their land
    From the tiny forests
    To the no more vines land
    This land belongs
    To PRMD

    Thumb up 20 Thumb down 7

  17. Waitasec... says:

    Paul Hobbs and the Davis’s got in trouble by flaunting the law. It was just too troublesome for them to follow the rules that above-board transactions abide by.

    They got an answer they wanted from CalFire, and disregarded the other agencies involved.

    This isn’t the first violation by Paul Hobbs. This is the third time Hobbs’ developments have been found in violation. Kudos to Supervisor Carrillo for calling out Hobbs’ pattern of disregard for both the environment and the lawful process to create a vineyard.

    Thanks to the Agricultural Commissioner and DA for standing up to this bad actor. Three strikes – he’s out. Throw the book at him.

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  18. Thomas Morabito says:

    A few months ago Efren and Sonoma County forced the sale of 3 acres of privately owned property at a public auction. The only bidder present was Paul Hobbs LP who purchased the parcel for $1,000. I would estimate this to be less than 1% of its true value. The land is located in the scenic corridor north of Sebastopol. It was immediatly clear cut to make room for the wine industry which makes up 90% of the ag land in the county.

    A few months before this, Efren and our Board of Supervisors voted to amend the General Plan twice and rezone property to allow the Best Family Investers LLC to clear cut an apple orchard and build a 33,000sqft bottling plant and 5000sqft tasting room in a residential neighborhood along the same scenic highway. The county is not even requiring an Environmental Impact Report.

    There is a lot more going on here than grapes being more profitable than apples. Efren, Sonoma County Government and the Planning Department are rewriting the General Plan and Zoning laws to accommodate corporate wine industry interests. This is a classic story of the ultra rich getting ultra richer by seeding local government with cooperative politicians who appoint their own planning commissioners.

    Efren must think the people are to stupid to realize that his attention grabbing headlines well after the irrevocable damage is done are a weak attempt to portray himself as an environmentalist.
    Efren has been selling Sonoma County to the highest bidders for 3 years.

    Thumb up 40 Thumb down 4

  19. MOCKINGBIRD says:

    As I read this article the issue seems to be his blatant disregard of following the law, not the fact that this time they are Christmas trees.

    And I am sick and tired of vineyards desecrating our oak and redwood woodlands that really are as much a tourist attraction as winetasting.

    Thumb up 15 Thumb down 14

  20. Skippy says:

    The man owns the property.
    None of the trees are protected old-growth virgin forests.
    It is private property, zoned for agriculture.
    What does anyone have to say about it?
    If Emperor Carillo wishes to halt this perfectly legal and proper improvement, let him buy the land.
    With his money, not mine.
    Of course, if the Emperor would like to share in the risks inherent in agriculture, he can start his own farm and show us all how it’s done.

    Thumb up 28 Thumb down 18

  21. GAJ says:

    Oh my, they cut down trees specifically planted to be cut down!

    The horror!

    Thumb up 27 Thumb down 17

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