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Hobbs conversion headed to court

Sonoma West

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.


Fundraising Letter


When the parents of 700 children discovered that a large-scale Paul Hobbs Winery vineyard was planned for a site just feet away from the five schools their children attend, they decided to take a stand to protect the children from exposure to pesticides that could drift onto the playgrounds.  They joined to form the Watertrough Children’s Alliance (WCA).

After months of unanswered pleas for real environmental review, including the effect of pesticide use on school children attending school next to the vineyard development, the WCA is bringing a lawsuit against the County of Sonoma.

Currently, big business wine companies receive carte blanche in Sonoma County if they propose to convert cropland to vineyards: The County requires NO MEANINGFUL ENVIRONMENTAL REVIEW UNDER THE CALIFORNIA ENVIRONMENTAL QUALITY ACT (CEQA).* Sadly, without this level of review, the potential health impacts of pesticide use on neighboring properties, including schools, are not considered or addressed.**

It’s time to mandate that Sonoma County comply with this important California law when permitting vineyard developments.

We envision a vibrant agricultural community in Sonoma County, where local diverse agriculture and sensitive viticulture practice can thrive alongside our families, visitors, forests, and watersheds. We can be an example that inspires new paradigms of healthy ecological integrity.

HELP US protect the environment and our children’s health by compelling the County to follow existing state law and provide meaningful environmental review of new vineyard developments.

Take this moment NOW to commit to that future for all of us. We need your help to continue this important work – please join us in this commitment with an offering of generosity.


Donate Online:
Or send checks to:O.W.L. Foundation, for WCA1390 N. McDowell Blvd. Suite G 306, Petaluma, CA 94954

*CEQA is a thoughtfully crafted state law designed to protect the environment by requiring public agencies to identify and then avoid or mitigate any significant environmental effects of a proposed project.  **According to the California Department of Pesticide Regulations 2011 Annual Report, 2,357,779 pounds of pesticides, fungicides, herbicides, and rodenticides were applied in vineyards in Sonoma County in 2011.

Posted on January 23, 2014 By manishie

Fields of Change – A New Crop of American Farmers Finds Alternatives to Pesticides

Natural Resource Defense Council


During the past decade, the public has grown increasingly concerned about agricultural pesticide use. Exposure to pesticides, even at low doses, is associated with a wide variety of health effects, and these compounds are now commonly found throughout our environment. Despite some important advances, federal pesticide regulatory programs have failed to prevent an overall increase in pesticide use, risks, and reliance. This not only threatens public health and the environment, but it puts farmers’ livelihood in jeopardy. Farmers purchase materials that are legal and that they believe can be used safely and effectively for crop production, only to later be denied the use of some of these chemicals because they are discovered to be hazardous.

In the long run, both farmers and the public will be best protected by a fundamental restructuring of pesticide policies and agricultural research and education programs to minimize pesticide use and rely instead on non-chemical, biologically based methods that prevent pest problems. A wide variety of alternative agricultural tools are available to reduce pesticide use and reliance, including those used in Integrated Pest Management (IPM) and sustainable and organic farming systems.

Despite the significant number of well documented barriers to the adoption of alternative agriculture, innovative and successful farmers around the country are switching from conventional pest management practices, which are heavily reliant on pesticides, to profitable alternative agricultural practices that substantially reduce pesticide use. This report tells the story of 22 such farmers from the following 16 states: California, Florida, Georgia, Illinois, Iowa, Louisiana, Michigan, Mississippi, Missouri, Montana, New York, North Carolina, Texas, Vermont, Washington, and Wisconsin. Collectively, they produce many of the nation’s most valuable commodities, including a wide variety of fruits, vegetables, grains, cotton, and dairy.

As recently as 15 years ago, all of these farmers relied extensively on pesticides to manage insects, weeds, and diseases. In many cases, pesticides were applied prophylactically or on a calendar basis without regard to the level of pest pressure or presence of natural controls. In response to economic, environmental, health, and/or ethical concerns, each of these farmers decided to experiment with alternative practices.

Most of the farmers began their transition to alternative agriculture on a small scale, practicing on a portion of their acreage before expanding. With experience, they have each developed localized, economically viable pest and farm manage-

ment methods that have led to substantial reductions in synthetic pesticide use, ranging from 10 to 100 percent, depending on the crop and type of pesticide. Two-thirds of the farmers have reduced one or more synthetic pesticide types between 50 and 100 percent. The farmers use a wide variety of alternative pest management techniques, including at least one if not several of the following:

  • scouting and monitoring for pest and natural enemy population levels
  • precision pesticide application equipment
  • rotating crops and planting cover crops
  • switching to biologically based pest control products
  • conservation tillage, irrigation management, and soil-building.

Close to 30 percent of the farmers produce all or a portion of their crop or commodity organically, without the use of synthetic pesticides and fertilizers. (For a detailed summary of these farmers’ achievements, see Table 2.)

All of the farmers made the conversion from conventional pest management systems to alternative pest management systems while maintaining, and in many cases improving, the profitability of their operations. In addition to economic gains, many farmers adopted alternative agricultural systems that have resulted in environmental benefits, including water quality protection, soil conservation, wildlife habitat enhancement, and recycling of urban waste.

Each farmer can identify at least one person or program that has helped them reduce pesticide use. Many of the farmers have found, for example, that hiring an independent pest control advisor (i.e., one without an economic interest in pesticide sales) has been critical to their success. Others are grateful for the help of neighboring farmers, non-profit education organizations, university researchers, and local extension agents. They also voice future needs if they are to continue making progress. As a group, their highest priorities are alternative agricultural research and education, cost-share assistance, and marketplace labeling programs. This report concludes by highlighting five key policy recommendations that, if implemented, would facilitate widespread adoption of alternative pest management practices and dramatically reduce agricultural pesticide use and reliance in the United States:

  • Implement an immediate and comprehensive education and technical assistance program, organized by the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, to make possible adoption of alternatives to organophosphate and carbamate insecticides and to triazine and acetanilide herbicides.
  • Substantially increase investment in sustainable and organic farming systems research and extension programs.
  • Salvage the Administration’s Integrated Pest Management initiative from five years of inaction.
  • Dramatically increase availability of technical and financial cost-share assistance and incentive programs.
  • Define terms and create rewards in the marketplace for foods grown using alternative pest management methods.

To read more click on link

Posted on January 29, 2013 By Mina