Posted on May 22, 2013 By Mina

Twin Hills parents not done fighting conversion

Sonoma West

by David Abbott Sonoma West Editor

Public forum scheduled for May 29

Parents from the Twin Hills Union School District have mobilized in an attempt to halt a proposed vineyard conversion in order to have more tests done on the soil and to get increased mitigation efforts in the soon-to-be vineyard surrounding the school district.

“We’re hopeful,” Joy Hamel, of the Watertrough Children’s Alliance (WCA), said. “Last week, we had an initial meeting with (Paul) Hobbs’ PR folks to get the conversation moving.”

The WCA is “a group of parents, children, educators and community members” associated with five area schools, including SunRidge, Apple Blossom, Orchard View, Nonesuch, and Tree House Hollow Preschool.

On May 29, there will be a public forum to discuss what is happening on the property and what can be done to decrease the amount of spraying likely to take place near the schools.

Opposition to the proposed conversion has been brewing since late last month when the abandoned buildings on the property, purchased by Paul Hobbs Winery in late 2012, were demolished.

Hobbs plans to convert 30 acres of the 40-acre parcel to winegrapes, leaving 10 acres as they are.

News of the conversion prompted an online petition to try to stop the project and the creation of the WCA. The petition reportedly had more than 700 signatures as of Tuesday.

According to a press release from the WCA, the group is committed to “organizing to engage the current policies and standard practices that need changing,” although they are fully aware that the conversion will in all likelihood take place.

“We want to work on engaging in a conversation about current practices and keeping spraying to a minimum,” Hamel said. “First, we want to put a halt to the conversion to do further soil testing. Then, we want (Hobbs) to move forward with practices that are good for people and good for the community.”

But in order to do that, the group will have to depend on the participation of Hobbs, as the Sonoma County Agricultural Commission has basically green-lighted the project.

“We’ve had discussions with the WCA to provide them with information and explain the process,” Ag Commissioner Tony Linegar said. “There’s not a lot they can do. (The conversion) fits in the ministerial standard. Our job is to decide if it fits in the criteria.”

Linegar expects the permit to be issued within the next two weeks.

The WCA had an independent test done on soil samples from the site that found traces of DDT, which has increased concern over apple tree removal that is expected to raise a lot of dust in the immediate area.

But the Ag Commissioner believes the conversion will reduce exposure for students at the schools, as conventional apple orchards use more chemicals that are sprayed higher in the air than vineyards. He added it is likely any orchard that has been around since the 1940s or ’50s will have traces of DDT, as the powerful pesticide was used until it was banned in 1972.

“We don’t want an abandoned orchard. They become breeding grounds for pests and disease. It’s the last thing you want,” Linegar said. “I’d rather see it ripped out. … I’m glad it is staying agricultural land and not turning into a subdivision.”

It is not clear whether Hobbs will attend the public forum or not.

“We invited them to the forum and we’re hopeful they’ll come. We hope to have a peaceful and harmonious communication, however it is a public forum,” Hamel said. “We’re hoping to find a way to move forward in a healthy way. … We’re under no illusions. He’s a wine guy and we do live in an agricultural community.”

Hobbs has already offered to work with the school district to create “educational opportunities” and to move some of the apple trees to the campus, as well as creating a buffer zone between the school and the vineyard.

Additionally, he is proposing more than $100,000 in expenditures to rehabilitate the soil in preparation for growing high-end grapes.

“Paul Hobbs Winery is continuing to work with neighboring schools and the newly formed Watertrough Children’s Alliance.” Hobbs’ Marketing and Public Relations Manager Tara Sharp said. “The conversations have been constructive and useful for both sides to understand our respective perspectives and goals. We are completely aligned with regard to keeping our children safe and healthy.”

But parents are skeptical of Hobbs’ intentions, as the local vintner has had some high-profile dustups over vineyard conversions in other parts of the West County.

His issues with former neighbor John Jenkel led to the conversion of Jenkel’s Graton property into vineyards and in October 2011, Hobbs cleared Davis Christmas Tree Farm in Graton.

But apple orchards have caused their share of problems as well.

In May 1998, an apple orchard in the area was fined for the “drift” of pesticides that found their way to Apple Blossom School after officials found diazinon residue on the outside of the building.

The public forum on the “health risks of toxic chemical farming” will take place on Wednesday, May 29, from 7 to 9:30 p.m. at the Sebastopol Grange, 6000 Sebastopol Ave., Sebastopol.

According to a press release for the event, speakers “will address concerns and issues related to health risks of toxic chemical farming and the progress of the WCA’s mission.”