Paul Hobbs is making news in the West County again, as, on the heels of a $100,000 settlement with Sonoma County over questionable vineyard conversion practices, a lawsuit filed against the winemaker and the county by a group of parents in the Twin Hills Union School District will head to court.
A hearing will take place on March 2 at 9 a.m. in department 17 at 3035 Cleveland Ave., Santa Rosa.
The lawsuit, filed in December 2013 by the Watertrough Children’s Alliance, alleges that the county failed in its oversight duties by issuing a permit for the transformation of a 48-acre apple orchard into 39 acres of grape vines.
“This is a major project and it should have a CEQA review. It’s a huge manipulation of the environment. Why shouldn’t it require CEQA?” WCA attorney Paul Carroll said. “It’s been applied to much smaller projects. Thirty-eight acres is a huge project right next to a school. Hobbs shouldn’t get a free ride.”
But the ride has not been exactly free for the internationally known vintner who has had his share of run-ins with regulatory agencies over several West County vineyard conversion projects.
On Feb. 2, the Sonoma County District Attorney’s office announced a $100,000 settlement with Hobbs over a civil environmental complaint filed on May 28, 2014, focused on conversion projects that took place from 2011 to 2013.
The three vineyards are located at 11835 Highway 116 in Forestville, 3800 Vine Hill Road in Sebastopol — property that formerly belonged to political gadfly John Jenkel — and 622 Watertrough Road in Sebastopol, the property at the heart of the current lawsuit.
The settlement also “provides for civil penalties, costs … and permanent injunctive relief prohibiting unlawful vineyard development in violation of environmental laws in Sonoma County.”
According to a press release announcing the settlement, $35,000 will go toward consumer and environmental protection; $30,000 for unlawful stream bank alteration and $20,000 for restitution. Of that, $10,000 will go to the Sonoma County Agricultural Commissioner’s Office for equipment and training to assist with the environmental investigation and $10,000 will go to the THUSD for environmental education and creek restoration. Additionally, investigative costs will go to the Regional Water Quality Control Board, the ag commissioner’s office and the DA’s office.
But the current lawsuit, which seeks a suspension of work so that a California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) review can take place, is seen by Hobbs as an attack on Sonoma County’s Vineyard Erosion and Soil Control Ordinance (VESCO) and could be detrimental to small farmers should it be successful.
“We’re terribly concerned,” Hobbs spokesman Christopher O’Gorman said. “This is an attack on VESCO…. If VESCO gets thrown out, the CEQA process will price small farmers out.”
VESCO is viewed as a “ministerial” process, which means the county has no power to force the vineyard applicant to get any environmental review on the affects of the project. Discretionary means the county can modify the project under VESCO based on environmental concerns.
The lawsuit argues that the county was remiss in its oversight of the project and has the authority to trigger a CEQA review.
“They (Ag Commissioner’s Office) said it was ministerial, but they made (several) changes, which makes it discretionary,” Amber Risucci, a spokeswoman for the WCA said.
The WCA does not believe the argument that its suit will have a negative affect on small farmers, stating that “80 percent” of the vineyards in Sonoma County are owned by large corporate entities and not small, independent farmers.
“Every industry that has had to deal with CEQA will say that,” Carroll said. “Small farmers will not be sued for CEQA violations. There are ways to get around it.”
Parents are also concerned that Hobbs did not follow through with terms laid down by the county in the wake of an initial shutdown of the project following complaints in June 2013.
The project was red tagged in late June that year, when unseasonal rains exposed erosion running into a creek on the property and excessive clearing of vegetation. The permit required a 50-foot setback from the creek, but, according to Hobbs, vineyard workers accidentally cleared too much of the existing blackberry bushes and bay laurels on the property. Work recommenced in late August 2013 after an agreement with the county was reached.
Hobbs “apologized and replanted the area,” according to a statement at the time and in October 2013, offered the county 117 acres of redwoods as an open space easement along with a $175,750 endowment to offset expenses.
The space is near a Pocket Canyon property where Hobbs cleared 10 acres of redwoods in 2011 without getting proper permits.
But O’Gorman said he is confident the most recent suit will turn out in Hobbs’ favor and is ready to get back to the business of grape growing.
“We put up a dust fence and we’re on good terms with (THUSD Superintendent) Barbara Bickford,” he said. “Our permits are in place and the settlement has been paid. We’re happy to have reached an agreement and are looking forward to getting back to agriculture in Sonoma County.”
The THUSD is comprised of five area schools with about 700 students, including SunRidge, Apple Blossom, Orchard View, Nonesuch, and Tree House Hollow Preschool.