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Grape Gripes

[whitespace] Steep-slope ordinance wins tentative county support

By Janet Wells

IT'S NOT A DONE DEAL, but a landmark ordinance that would place limits on local grape planting won an overwhelming show of support on Tuesday from the county Board of Supervisors. But the topic wasn't without discussion at a packed public hearing.

After 18 months of negotiations, grape growers and environmentalists had forged the unprecedented agreement to protect stream habitat for threatened coho salmon and steep hillsides from erosion caused by encroaching vineyards. The agreement forms a template for the county's first land-use regulation for Sonoma County's increasingly valuable wine-producing acreage. It is similar to a steep-slope ordinance adopted five years ago in neighboring Napa County.

But in turning the negotiated plan into an ordinance that went before the supes, county attorneys made key changes that environmentalists say could weaken the hard-fought agreement. "We are fully in support of the agreement made between the growers and the environmental community. The document in front of the board does not really reflect that agreement," says Mark Green, executive director of Sonoma County Conservation Action, which spearheaded the negotiation efforts. "We were assured that when county counsel came out with the draft document we would be invited to sit down and talk, and any amendments would be made before it went to the supes. That did not happen."

More than 60 people packed the supervisors' chambers Tuesday afternoon, and the board heard from dozens of supporters and critics before giving unanimous support in a straw vote. The board also ordered revisions to the ordinance, which will return for final approval May 11. "You're getting a lot in the package," says Bob Anderson, executive director of United Winegrowers for Sonoma County and one of the negotiating team. "I hope the good feeling we had in bringing it to you, we have when you're done with it."

While there is some urgency to enact an ordinance before the vine-planting season goes into full swing, the board "wants to get it right," says Supervisor Mike Reilly. "We're willing to take the time to make an ordinance that makes sense, is enforceable, and doesn't create any more of a burden than it has to."

The basic provisions of the ordinance require growers to obtain and pay for permits to plant grapes and to provide erosion-control plans for steeper acreage. In addition, the ordinance requires that vineyards on the edge of streams, creeks, and rivers abide by a 25- to 50-foot setback, depending on the slope of the acreage, to protect vegetation and wildlife habitat. The ordinance stipulates fines for landowners who ignore the rules.

"It certainly is an additional burden to some people in viticulture and agriculture, no question," Reilly says. "Is it justified in terms of public good? I believe it is. The Russian River and all its tributaries officially have been classified as an impaired waterway due to sedimentation. That specifically is what this erosion plan addresses."

THE PROPOSED ordinance reflects the public's growing concern as the region's $300 million wine-grape industry expands into erosion-prone hills and fragile riparian zones. In the past few years, several incidents spurred environmentalists to make noise about a ballot initiative to put limits on vineyard development. Gallo Winery was cited for recontouring hills and planting along the edge of Porter Creek, and a vineyard above Warm Springs Dam was fined $50,000 for steep-slope planting that led to an enormous amount of soil eroding into the Gualala River during a severe winter storm.

The conflict between growers and local environmentalists continued more recently with Kendall-Jackson's proposal to cultivate a new 127-acre vineyard on 189 acres in Graton. Residents say they are concerned about the project's water supply, pesticides, and potential development.

Rather than pursue a divisive ballot measure, representatives from growers' associations, the Sierra Club, Friends of the Russian River, and Sonoma County Conservation Action hammered out "a mutually agreeable solution," Green says.

"It's a dramatic improvement from the situation we are in now. I don't pretend it's everything we wanted, but I've had to look at the reality of what's going to happen over the next few years if this ordinance is not enacted," he says. "If you can get a 50-foot setback, while it may not meet all the needs of the creek, the reality is that right now an owner can mow down all the habitat right to the edge of the creek. "

For the ag community to agree to regulation when there is none is a major step forward," he says.

Anderson agrees, albeit reluctantly: "Clearly, any time you have more regulation, the conclusion would be that we'd be better off with less. But we've been able to work out, through these negotiations, an approach that we can live with."

The sticking point now, says Green, are several substantive changes to the agreement, including giving the county ag commissioner the power to exempt landowners from the set-back provisions, as well as a loophole that will allow development of acreage with more than a 50 percent slope.

Sonoma County has about 45,000 acres in vineyard cultivation, up from about 30,000 acres just 10 years ago. The price for land cultivated with premium grapes has doubled in three years, fetching up to $50,000 an acre. In Napa County, where premium acreage fetches even higher prices, growers pay $1,300 to permit a hillside vineyard, regardless of the size.

SEVERAL SPEAKERS encouraged the supervisors to adopt a sliding scale for permit fees, based on the size of the property, as well as high penalty fees to discourage growers from violating the ordinance.

"I think it's reasonable to give the ag commissioner discretion to fine up to $1,000 a day until the problem is corrected," Reilly says.

Forestville resident Susan Bryer-Starr says fines should be even higher. "Damage to the environment is irreparable. Fines of $1,000 a day are inadequate," she says. "Fines should be equal to or greater than the potential profit from the project."

The proposed ordinance certainly has its critics. While some environmentalists see the ordinance as selling out, others in the agriculture industry see it as going too far. "I'm wondering if I'm a threatened species," says John Bucher, former Farm Bureau president. "The 50-foot setback is too extreme. I'm concerned that in two years it will become the norm for all agriculture."

Sebastopol farmer Shepherd Bliss says the proposed ordinance is "very weak." He would like to see a citizens' referendum on vineyard development. "As a small-scale farmer, I'm concerned that continuing growth will reduce diversity and we'll become like Napa," says Bliss, who grows organic berries and sells free-range chicken eggs. "We're 40 percent grapes and Napa is 90 percent. Ten years ago we were 30 percent. What we're experiencing is a movement towards monocrop. I see the wine industry as the biggest problem in the county now. They present themselves as green because they do have vegetation, but it's not a diverse landscape with redwoods and oaks," Bliss adds. "We're being transformed from the Redwood Empire into the Wine Country. It's such a different metaphor."

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From the April 15-21, 1999 issue of the Sonoma County Independent.

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