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.