By SEAN SCULLY
THE PRESS DEMOCRAT
Sonoma County supervisors on Tuesday approved an offer by winemaker Paul Hobbs to permanently protect 117 wooded acres near Forestville from development, but they insisted the preservation-oriented gift will not sway them if Hobbs attempts to move ahead with a controversial adjacent vineyard project.
Accepting the easement “in no way mandates, requires or ties the board’s hands” in any other matter related to Hobbs, said Supervisor Efren Carrillo, who represents the area.
The land will be permanently placed off limits for development under a conservation easement, administered by the Sonoma County Agricultural Preservation and Open Space District. In an unusual move, Hobbs included an endowment of $175,750 to pay for the district’s costs in administering the land.
The land is on the same Pocket Canyon-area property where Hobbs cleared 10 acres of timber in 2011 without obtaining the proper county permits. That matter remains under review by county officials and Hobbs has not applied for the permits he would need to convert the cleared land to vineyards, as he apparently intended in the first place.
During Tuesday’s meeting, supervisors said they were receiving angry calls and emails from constituents suggesting the conservation easement was somehow intended to influence their decision on the vineyard, should the matter ever come before them. They vigorously denied the two matters were connected.
Nor, said Supervisor Susan Gorin, would rejecting the easement have somehow punished Hobbs for his past conduct.
“If we reject this, it will not save one tree,” she said. “The trees have already been cut” on the neighboring 10 acres.
Hobbs has made himself unpopular with neighbors and county officials with several aggressive vineyard projects, including this property and the clearing of 8 acres near Sebastopol, also in 2011. Most recently, in July, county officials ordered him to stop work tearing out a 48-acre orchard in Sebastopol after inspectors found he had illegally cleared bay laurel and blackberry bushes along a creek bed.
Open Space District General Manager Bill Keene said Hobbs was required by the state to donate the easement to comply with his timber harvest permit, issued by Calfire. The deadline to do so was Tuesday.
While the property in question was not on the district’s list of land it would have liked to see preserved, Keene described the deal as a “pretty good outcome,” particularly considering that Hobbs provided money to pay for administering the land into the future.
Several longtime critics of Hobbs asked the supervisors to delay the matter since it was only added to the meeting agenda late last week, leaving the public little time to study the details.
“It just feels like we’re bending over backwards to do this developer a favor,” said Forestville attorney Kimberly Burr.
Sonoma County Water Coalition member John Roberts said Hobbs’ past actions were egregious enough that the county should be “very suspicious of his methods and intentions.”
Supervisor David Rabbitt admitted the connection with Hobbs made the otherwise routine conservation easement more controversial than normal for such donations.
“Had there been any other name on the document, it would have been seen as a great day,” he said.
Hobbs did not appear at Tuesday’s meeting, but his attorney, John Holdredge, said the easement was more than just an effort to comply with state requirements.
Hobbs gave the easement “with absolutely no guarantee, no certainty, no promise of anything in return,” he said. “It is an unqualified gift.”
The donation “hopefully will be a first step in rehabilitating what some in the public think about Paul,” Holdredge said. “Clearly some mistakes were made out there; this is a first step in rectifying those mistakes.”