Environmental Groups’ Lawsuit could Upend Sonoma County Vineyard Policies

June 13, 2014

Chris Poehlmann, president of the Friends of the Gualala River, on the outskirts of Annapolis, Thursday July 21, 2011. (Kent Porter / Press Democrat)
Chris Poehlmann, president of the Friends of the Gualala River, on the outskirts of Annapolis, Thursday July 21, 2011. (Kent Porter / Press Democrat)

Three environmental groups are challenging Sonoma County’s approval of a 54-acre Annapolis vineyard in a case that reflects long-standing conflict over expansion of the county’s $600 million a year grape industry.

If the lawsuit were to succeed, it would wipe out the county’s vineyard development law, itself born amid controversy between growers and environmentalists 14 years ago.

That friction has intensified with the recent growth of forest-to-vineyard projects near the coast, a cool region hospitable to pinot noir grapes, the most expensive varietal grown in the county.

The law — officially named the Vineyard Erosion and Sediment Control Ordinance, known as VESCO — contains a “poison pill” that automatically invalidates the entire law if the courts reject one critical provision, Deputy County Counsel Jeff Brax said.

The legality of that provision, which empowers the county to approve vineyard development plans without environmental study or public hearing, is exactly what the lawsuit challenges.

If VESCO were invalidated, the county might be left with no vineyard development regulations, Brax said.

Filed by the Friends of the Gualala River, the Center for Biological Diversity and the Sierra Club, the lawsuit alleges the county violated state law in granting a permit to the Ohlson Ranch in December for a 54-acre vineyard on Stewarts Point Skaggs Springs Road south of Annapolis.

The county’s failure to conduct an environmental review of the project “constituted a prejudicial abuse of discretion,” according to the suit, filed last month.

“It’s a very simple lawsuit,” said Paul Carroll, a Redwood City attorney, asserting that state law required an environmental assessment of the Ohlson project due to its “potential for environmental damage.”

Carroll said the lawsuit is not an attack on VESCO, but if the courts support it many other vineyard projects would fall under the same requirement.

Grape growers, who were involved in drafting the law, have said it is a workable measure that includes standards to prevent soil erosion on hillside vineyards.

Under VESCO, the county approved more than 5,500 acres of new vineyards and nearly 13,400 acres of replantings from 2006 to 2013, according to the 2013 Sonoma County Crop Report. The county now has nearly 60,000 acres of vineyards.

VESCO, adopted by the Board of Supervisors in 2000 and amended twice since then, exempts vineyard projects from the state’s environmental law and allows administrative approval by the county’s agriculture commissioner.

The Ohlson project “got the equivalent of a dog license,” said Chris Poehlmann, president of Friends of the Gualala River, a nonprofit association.

The proposed vineyard lies uphill from Haupt Creek, a tributary of the Gualala River, a popular steelhead trout fishing stream that flows into the Pacific Ocean at the Sonoma-Mendocino county line.

Grading the land, installing miles of fencing and irrigating vineyards are among the impacts that “ought to be reviewed in an area above a river like this,” Poehlmann said.

The river is listed by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency as impaired by excessive sediment and high temperatures, conditions that Poehlmann attributed to previous timber operations.

Steelhead, a threatened species, need clear, cold water to support their first year of life in the river, said Charlie Ivor, who has fished the Gualala River for 15 years.

The lawsuit asks a judge to revoke the county’s approval of the Ohlson vineyard and to conduct an environmental review, as well as an order prohibiting any construction activity.

The Ohlson family, former owners of the Sea Ranch property, could not be reached for comment.

Carroll said the suit raises the same challenge to VESCO as a claim he filed in November contesting county approval of a 48-acre vineyard conversion project by Sebastopol winemaker Paul Hobbs.

That lawsuit is pending, and Carroll said it and the Ohlson suit may ultimately be consolidated.

Brax, the county lawyer handling both cases, noted that VESCO’s exemption of vineyard projects from environmental review was upheld by Superior Court Judge Rene Chouteau in 2011.

The controversial law was unanimously adopted by the supervisors in 2000, following two years of public debate. Critics called the law a sellout to the wine industry, while advocates said it set standards for hillside vineyard development.

Former Supervisor Paul Kelley said at the time it would be a “horrendous precedent” to require environmental review of farm operations.

Board Chairman Mike Reilly, an environmentalist, said he had qualms about the measure’s language, but called it a “first step” toward vineyard regulation.

When the measure was amended in 2012, Supervisor Efren Carrillo said: “It seems to me that no one’s happy here, on either side.”

Tim Tesconi, executive director of the Sonoma County Farm Bureau, said last week that VESCO was intended “to make peace” between environmentalists and grape growers.

The law, applied to thousands of acres of grapevine planting, has “worked very well” in controlling erosion, he said.

Bob Anderson, executive director of United Winegrowers for Sonoma County, said the vineyard development standards established by VESCO have resulted in “real benefits” to the environment.

Suzanne Doyle, conservation chairwoman for the Sierra Club’s Sonoma Group, said that forest-to-vineyard projects should be subjected to public review.

Under VESCO, county officials “can just stamp it and it’s a done deal,” she said.

The three environmental groups behind the Ohlson lawsuit prevailed last year in a lawsuit challenging the Artesa Vineyards and Winery project, a proposed 154-acre forest-to-vineyard conversion near Annapolis.

Two weeks ago, Artesa announced it was shelving the project and putting the 324-acre property on the market for $1.5 million.

The most controversial vineyard project, Preservation Ranch, would have cleared nearly 1,800 acres of forest on a roughly 20,000-acre property north of the Artesa site.

The project was scuttled last year when CalPERS, the giant state employees pension fund, sold the property to a national conservation group in a $24.5 million deal backed by $14 million in state and county open space funds.