Posted on August 30, 2013 By Mina

Work resumes on controversial vineyard conversion project in Sebastopol

Press Democrat

Tractors, bulldozers and excavators stand still in the apple orchards being converted into vineyards by winemaker Paul Hobbs in Sebastopol in this June 28, 2013 file photo. County agricultural officials have just lifted the stop-work ban on the property, allowing the conversion project to resume. (Conner Jay/The Press Democrat)

County agricultural officials have lifted a stop-work order on a controversial vineyard conversion project adjacent to two Sebastopol schools saying required environmental restoration work is underway.

West Sonoma County winemaker Paul Hobbs was cleared on Aug. 23 to restart the project that will convert a 48-acre Watertrough Road apple orchard into a vineyard.

The Agricultural Commissioner halted the project in June after discovering that workers had illegally cleared bay laurel and blackberry bushes near a creek and failed to prevent erosion.

Water quality and wildlife agencies are satisfied with the restoration work, which included replanting the brush and installing an erosion-control berm, Agricultural Commissioner Tony Linegar said.

“We’re happy with the work,” he said. “All the agencies are on board with what he’s done so far.”

Workers are now removing the apple trees, and they will plant grass and lay down straw to control erosion during the rainy season, Linegar said. Grapes will be planted in the Spring.

“Probably the most important thing is (Hobbs) made a decision to button it up for the winter,” Linegar said.

Hobbs, owner of Paul Hobbs Winery, still faces thousands of dollars in fines for violating the conversion permit. Linegar said the commissioner’s office will continue to monitor the property.

A Hobbs spokesperson said in an emailed statement: “We at Paul Hobbs Winery have worked diligently with the county to prepare the land for a vineyard conversion that is environmentally sound. Lee Erickson, one of our region’s best civil and agricultural engineers, is managing our erosion control plans, and WRA Environmental Consultants is working with us to plant native vegetation throughout the property. We are confident that by working with these groups, the conversion will be both thoughtful and undisruptive to the community.”

The project has drawn scrutiny mainly because of its location adjacent to Apple Blossom and Orchard View schools. Parents are concerned that pesticide-laden dust from the work will drift onto school grounds.

Workers installed a fence to keep dust out of the school before students returned from summer break last week, Twin Hills School Board president Maben Rainwater said, adding that he is happy with the work Hobbs has done.

“The drums aren’t beating these days,” he said. “This issue seems to have run its course. I’m hearing better things coming from Hobbs.”

The school district is working with the county to adopt an ordinance that would set guidelines for agricultural projects next to schools. Some counties have strict regulations on things like pesticides and work hours for projects adjacent to schools.

Despite the environmental restoration, a group called The Watertrough Children’s Alliance, made up of concerned parents whose children attend schools in the area, continues to oppose the project saying that it puts students’ health at risk.

“I think the track record of this company is extremely troubling,” said Christine Dzilvelis, a group member. “This issue is far from put to rest.”