WatchSonoma Watch

Moratorium sought on vineyard development

It is unclear how a proposed moratorium will affect an Artesa Vineyards projects on the outskirts of Annapolis. (PD FILE, 2011)


Growing unease about a wave of vineyard projects that call for clear-cutting forested hillsides has Sonoma County officials calling for an emergency halt until new regulations are crafted.

Sonoma County Agricultural Commissioner Tony Linegar has proposed a four-month moratorium on vineyard projects that would remove trees from ridge tops or slopes greater than 15 percent.

The proposal goes to the Sonoma County Board of Supervisors on Tuesday.

Six applications calling for 370 acres of vineyards on forested hillsides have given county officials pause, particularly on the subject of whether current rules regarding tree removal are sufficient to prevent erosion into surrounding waterways.

“Some of the projects that we have in front of us now are proposing to remove large amount of trees. We’re not talking about small acreages,” Linegar said Thursday. “Rather than let these projects go forward and cause a problem with sedimentation, we’d rather be proactive.”

How two large timberland conversion projects already in the pipeline could be affected by new county regulations is unclear. Napa’s Artesa Vineyards wants to develop 151 acres of pinot noir and chardonnay vineyards, while Premier Pacific Vineyards’ “Preservation Ranch” hopes to convert 1,800 of its 20,000 acres to vineyards.

Both the state Department of Forestry and Fire Protection and the county have oversight over the two Annapolis area projects.

“These projects could be subject to the new standards that we develop,” Linegar said.

Officials in the agriculture and wine industries immediately questioned the need for the changes and wondered why they were not consulted.

“This has come as a real shock and surprise to the ag and grower community,” said Lex McCorvey, executive director of the Sonoma County Farm Bureau. “I saw the board agenda and I thought, ‘What the heck is this?’”

Several wine industry leaders said they assume the moratorium is connected to the high-profile problems vintner Paul Hobbs faced last year with three vineyard projects. Hobbs angered many west county residents when he clear-cut properties in Graton, Sebastopol and Pocket Canyon, in some cases without permits. He has claimed he did nothing wrong.

But Sonoma County Supervisor Efren Carrillo, a sharp critic of Hobbs, said the moratorium had nothing to do with Hobbs’ projects. The issue is simply whether county erosion regulations should be updated in the face of several pending projects, he said.

Carrillo said he was unaware of the details of the six projects that would be put on hold.

Linegar, who has been agricultural commissioner for three weeks, would not name projects or developers, but acknowledged those details are public information.

They are located in western and northern Sonoma County and Sonoma Valley, he said, and mostly involve the removal of oak, madrone and bay trees.

The urgency measure would go into effect immediately and expire May 31. Vineyard replantings and new vineyards that do not remove trees would be unaffected.

Proposed regulations are to be submitted to county supervisors by April 24.

Supervisor Mike McGuire, whose district encompasses the northern portion of the county, said he supports hitting the pause button.

“I think what this temporary timeout will allow is a thoughtful conversation about the issue that respects the rights of property owners and the greater environment,” McGuire said.

There are about 59,000 acres of premium wine grapes in Sonoma County, down about 3,000 acres from the peak of a decade ago, said Nick Frey, president of the Sonoma County Winegrape Commission.

There has been a slight increase in grape prices recently as wine sales have strengthened and the smaller crops in recent years have reduced supply, Frey said. But the number of new applications prompting the moratorium represent a tiny fraction of county’s forestlands, he said.

“There’s not this insatiable demand for grapes for high-priced bottles of wines that’s going to lead to lots of new acres,” Frey said.

McGuire said it is his sense that the valley floors in much of the county have already been planted, and growers looking to expand are increasingly eyeing hillsides for their grapes.

“There has been a change in the landscape,” McGuire said.

The county allows the development of hillside vineyards on slopes up to 50 percent under an erosion control ordinance passed in 2000. The ordinance, known as Vineyard Erosion and Sediment Control Ordinance, or VESCO, contains no restrictions on tree removal.

Trees near rivers and creeks are protected by regulations requiring vineyards be set back from banks 25 to 50 feet, depending on the slope and soil conditions.

The county’s tree ordinance exempts agricultural.

Not including guidelines for tree removal in VESCO was an “oversight” because “clearly, tree removal affects erosion,” Linegar said.

It’s not just tree roots that keep hillside soil in place, but the canopy, as well, which slows rain before it hits the ground, Linegar said.

Adding a section to VESCO could address tree removal on slopes over 30 percent or also set some limit on the percentage of tree canopy that could be removed, he said.

Pete Opatz, vice president for Silverado Premium Properties in Napa, was heavily involved in the creation of the original VESCO regulations and said they have worked very well.

He said he’s a little surprised the issue has come up now because removing trees to plant vines is often a bad idea given that tree root fungus can cause problems for grape growers long after the trees are gone.

But if the regulations can be strengthened through the process, he’s all for it.

“We’re happy to go back to the table to get something that will last another 12 years,” he said.

You can reach Staff Writer Kevin McCallum at 521-5207 or kevin.mccallum@pressdemocrat.com.

21 Responses to “Moratorium sought on vineyard development”

  1. The Hammer says:

    It’s not your property and everyone has the RIGHT to try and prosper! If you wish the trees to stay then buy the damn property and do with it as you please! Tax the other guy just don’t tax me. Let the other guy pay my way. Damn!

  2. Social Dis-Ease says:

    OK to be fair, SOME guidelines/genuine public input should be in place to prevent the Paul Hobbs of the Wine Country from over reaching.

    However we’ve completely blown past common sense a long time ago.

    This evil green environmental oppression is currently sabotaging our food supply from every angle.
    The Agenda has has spearheaded an effort to blow up HUMDREDS of our dams, with hundreds more planned!
    The clean energy they produce and the rural farmers, ranchers, growers and rural folks down stream are devastated
    (that’s the whole idea).

    They always find some green guise; the Klamath River dam is next in Siskiyou County. Even though the salmon in the river were introduced and not indigenous. Even though there’s miles for them to spawn downstream as they have been. They intend to carry out this catastrophe over their contrived green excuse.
    It’s always the same, even though the action wouldn’t pass the smell test from a child. They synthsize public input and go.

    Just like the Delta Smelt, the excuse to take most of the water away from the biggest bread basket on the left coast!
    They admitted their findings were flawed after pressure. Think they reinstated the Valley’s water? Nope.

    Why don’t we hear about this travesty in the media?

    I’ve said it before. Possibly the best way to get someone up to speed on Agenda 21 is to search;
    Agenda 21 and Agriculture.

    Whatever you are doing, it’s probably not as important as resisting the biggest oppression ever.
    It’s all over, but Sonoma County is the example, the poster child.
    I say we set an example for the whole Country to follow, unless you don’t think your very ongoing is worth standing up for.
    Our public officials have to know that we will hold them accountable for the degradation of our society.

    The local movement underway to purge our community of this satanic cancer is coming to be known as THE QUESTION.
    Democrats Against UN Agenda 21.com to find out how you can get involved.
    E-mail your public officials, make reference to THE QUESTION (always in caps).

    These times require your involvement.

  3. Lets be Reasonable says:

    Funny how those espousing free capitalism and no government regulations for the wineries, tend to be the same ones who are anti-immigrant – yet agriculture is one of the biggest job draws for illegals…

  4. Wino Fish says:

    @ Steve K..

    I grow grapes and make wine and know at leat 50 winemakers personally. I speak to brokers and read the trades recently returning from a major wine industry activity. The glut is residing and inventory is declining. However, the idea of clear cutting hill side trees for vineyards is not a popular position. I agree with Veggieman. However, thanks for taking your valuable time to straighten me out.

  5. Veggieman says:

    Finally the county is asking corporate agriculture to actually be “stewards of the land”. And there is pushback.

    Corporate agriculture wants to be left alone to do business using-up natural resources, import cheap labor, get price supports and tax breaks, but balks when the public asks for humane treatment of farm animals, and abiding by responsible land use policies.

    Agriculture is a business, and there are natural and man-made rules for doing business. Produce a quality product and sustain the conditions that allow you to do so.

    Woodland is not ag land – it serves the purpose of regenerating soil through collection and percolation of rainfall back into the aquifer. Leave it alone.

    Real leadership would see the problem of reeling in the bad actors as an opportunity to promote the sustainability of producing their commodity while pushing forward environmental quality production standards. Not as a “Green Marketing” promotion, but as a wider cultural value.

    It’s tough making a living in agriculture, but money can be made without destroying the land.

  6. Smoke and Mirrors says:

    What is this hoopla….My understanding is that between October to May there is rarely any tree removal done. Who will be on the evaluation committee? Is 3-4 months enough time to do an evaluation of proper tree removal?

    Didn’t Supervisor Carrillo support Hobbs until he thought the support would threaten his election plans?

    Didn’t the financiers of Preservation Ranch support Supervisor Carrillo’s previous election? Now he is looking at supporting the halt of Preservation Ranch on land previously used to harvest Timber?

    Can the new Commissioner follow up on Ken Ortin’s fatal accident in 2005 on his Sebastopol property due to sediment erosion from a neighboring Vineyard? Was this fatal accident ever investigated by the Vineyard Coordinator and the DA’s office as to foul play?

    Maybe the Press Democrat can follow up on this.

  7. TimeOut says:

    Magnus – that chocolate milk colored water in the Russian River is dirt – runoff soil that was not contained on-site.

    A healthy tree canopy slows the velocity of rain from about 30 mph to nearly nothing. Roots help hold the soil in place.

    The proposed moritorium will temporarily stop the removal of trees on land that would otherwise erode into streams, creeks, and the river. The BOS needs to use that time to protect watersheds from development and produce an effective Erosion Control Ordinance with a strong tree conservation section to help minimize that chocolate milk colored water.

    Vineyardists may say the remote lands produce intense flavors in grapes, but the truth is: hilltops and woodland are not agricultural lands, they’re just cheaper, even with the extensive engineering necessary to develop it.

    Erosion from hilltops and remote lands flows downstream and destroys salmon spawning pools. We never see the pollution, but we see the decline of the salmon population.

  8. NoQuarters says:

    do a little research, Water free? do you know how much a permit cost from the state Water Board and the fines for violating attached to permit
    If ya check the rivers in the sierra’s in any winter you will see its muddy
    there is a much beeter use for the land like food production
    The wine industry mine tunnels into the hill side to store barrels and have been clear cuuting for decades
    we don’t need more grapes but we sure don’t need more rules and regs

  9. Steve says:

    Sonoma County prides itself as being someplace special, culturally and aesthetically. It won’t be special if more of the natural environment is carved-up and cut-down.

    Napa still promotes itself as the “heart of the wine country”, but look at how much of the valley and how many of the hillsides are blanketed in vineyards. It’s not such special a place when it’s nearly all vineyard.

    California is supposed to have an environmental quality act – SEQUA to review the full impact of development effects on the land and water. Why doesn’t SEQUA apply to vineyard development?

    Sonoma County needs a stronger General Plan and zoning laws to protect the natural environment from unsuitable development. There is plenty of flat ground left for agricultural expansion.

  10. Steveguy says:

    Sorry Magnus, but the color of the river has more to due with natural silt. Maybe the Smith River up north clears in 3 days, but that is a special watershed. All rock.

    Our watersheds are actually getting better through efforts of the SOME vineyard owners. And the efforts of people like Doug Lipton in the Dry Creek area.

    Sure there can be improvements, but you can’t stop the muddy water due to our predominate Franciscan Formation.

    There are vineyard owners and managers that care, more that what people think. Preston does a great job, and many others. And they continue to to better.

    Even Wilson has gotten better, as I lived on a creek where he had vineyards. On slopes. On that creek, there were more natural slumps of dirt into the creek than any vineyard upstream could ever contribute, and we welcomed a bit of flooding of our low pastures to do natural replenishment of the soil.

    I know some vineyard managers that are very ” GREEN “.

    I suppose that some just say no, like the UN Agenda 21 folks point out. I know, some point it out here and I am sure glad they do, and continue to do so.

    I have a friend that inherited an old 6 barn chicken and sheep place, and the County came along IMMEDIATELY in after sad deaths and DEMANDED a few old cars be removed. There were some nice old car parts that on Ebay would have paid for some things. So much for private property after you die. She had to get rid of the benign cars PRONTO ! Under threat of a fine ! Only like 5 cars that nobody cared about, and she has 4 melted in old chicken barns. Point is, they made her abate RIGHT NOW!!!!!! or else, when the stuff has been there for decades.

    Beware the new rules and regs. They want to ruin any rural life.

  11. Magnus says:

    The Russian is still high and the color of chocolate milk from last weeks rain. Thanks to the wineries the river takes weeks to clear all the runoff sediment after a rain. They should be held accountable for what they have done, not be able to take water during low flow, pay for the water they steal, (yes they take it for free), control pesticide runoff, etc… After all that lets talk about cutting trees and terracing hillsides.

  12. Social Dis-Ease says:

    Search: Agenda 21 and Agriculture.

    See why more and more communities are kicking ICLEI out.

  13. Tom-ato says:

    It’s better to make land use decisions properly rather than quickly. Thank you Board of Supervisors for the proposed vineyard development moratorium.

    A moratorium gives all county residents an opportunity to help the Board develop better land use policies. The goal is to not just protect trees, but prevent silt pollution of salmon runs and habitat.

    Because agriculture uses so much water for operations, it is imperative that they do more to protect watershed lands that gather water to recharge the aquifer.

    Watershed land should be zoned out of any kind of development potential, as it benefits the entire county.

  14. From the Street says:

    There is a glut of wine on the market now. More vineyards and wine will just drive down the prices.

    But let the market, not the government decide enough is enough.

    The new growth politicians in Sonoma County do not like agriculture. They want population growth. Think SMART and the high density development it brings. All in the old Soviet style of government control.

  15. Paying Attention says:

    I am very happy to see our officials paying attention to this mono-crop issue. Especially since we, the common folk, must pay increasing prices for our water and sewer.

    With 60k acres of vineyards – they have already sucked 1/3 of our Russian River dry.

    Drive from LA to Oregon and all you see is grapes on the side of the road. Pretty scary.

  16. Social Dis-Ease says:

    More A21 sabotage.

  17. Greg Karraker says:

    Wino Fish.

    At last count, there were 309,000,000 million Americans.

    That makes you 1/309,000,000th of the market, which decides whether or not the market needs more grape. Please remember that the next time you presume to speak for something far larger than yourself.

  18. Follower says:

    It seems like there is still plenty of unused land in Sonoma County that isn’t Forest. Why do they need to cut trees to plant Vineyards?

    If it’s because it’s cheaper to buy Forest & clear it for vineyards, than it is to buy bare land… I guess they better start charging more for wine.

  19. bear says:

    Tree removal wasn’t left out of the 2000 regs due to an “oversight.” It was left out because the 2000 BOS, and every previous BOS, was in the pocket of the wine industry.

    It would be worth someone’s time to pull the files on the 2000 measure and see how it changed before adoption.

    I am pleased and amazed that current supervisors are taking the action they have. Especially when you consider the potential impacts of that monster proposal for the hills north of the river and south of Lake Sonoma.

    It would be nice if the vineyard folks would demonstrate how they control erosion on existing steep-slope vineyards. During the rainy season, and not the summer when the grapes look so good.

    How about sediment monitoring in creeks? Has any such thing ever been done? Enough so that we have a baseline and could go out and measure it now?

    That sort of data might exist in the environmental documentation of large vineyards, such as the Gallo development of the former McMurray ranch.

  20. Skippy says:

    In other words, Sonoma Co. is perfect for me right now.
    Don’t you dare change a thing, or else.
    I love the vineyards, but too many are ugly.
    I love the trees, but you can cut a few down to construct a few vineyards.
    I don’t care what it means to others and their families, I like it just as it is now.
    I’m sure my prescription, enforced by loads of Big Govt appointees, will make everything sweetness and light forever and ever.
    If you don’t comply, my unacountable agents in Big Govt will bankrupt you and destroy your livelihood and your dreams.
    Mine are the only ones that count.
    After all, it’s my right to force you to live the way I say.
    Elitism is my name; Big Govt is my weapon.

    Someone who moved here from a place that stinks.

  21. Wino Fish says:

    One of the reasons I live here is because of the wine but also because of the natural beauty. NO more hill top vineyards especially if you have to cut down too many trees. The public shouldn’t have to see natural landscape destruction for the select few. Let them move to another area. There’s plenty of wine grapes available and the market doesn’t need it.