Sonoma County supervisors eye changes to rules governing vineyard development


Changes sought by grape growers to Sonoma County’s ordinance governing vineyard development are set to come before the Board of Supervisors on Tuesday, with proposed revisions that county leaders say will streamline permitting and encourage more environmentally friendly farming practices.

The changes are meant to update the county’s Vineyard Erosion and Sediment Control Ordinance, established in 2000. The rules have long been a source of friction between the county’s dominant industry and environmental interests.

But the changes before the Board of Supervisors on Tuesday, supporters say, are a common-sense approach to adapting land use that will be better for the environment.

“In my mind, not only does this not weaken (the ordinance), but this increases it,” said Supervsior James Gore. “I want to see landowners and producers changing practices to less-intensive systems. And if we can streamline this process, and reduce the costs of permitting to do that, that is the ultimate win-win.”

The revisions call for greater leeway and eased rules for growers who are seeking to replant vineyards, including incentives for those who use less invasive methods. The changes also would adjust permitting costs and timelines.

The changes came about through a series of meetings over the past two years between grape growers and Supervisors Gore and Lynda Hopkins, who together represent the Russian River Valley, Dry Creek Valley, Westside Road and the Alexander Valley.

The original ordinance stemmed from a public push to prevent damaging erosion, tree removal and water pollution problems linked to vineyard operations, which now cover more than 60,000 acres in Sonoma County. In one case, a major landslide in 1998 caused Dry Creek to run red with sediment-laden runoff. The rules have been revised at least three times since the initial ordinance.

The latest proposal emerged from discontent within the wine industry about the work of an an outside contractor the county uses to oversee the vineyard erosion rules.

Mike Martini, a Sebastopol vintner and former Santa Rosa mayor who heads up an alliance of 20 family wineries, has played a central role in shaping the proposed changes.

He said the revisions up for a vote this week represent areas of consensus between the major stakeholders, including environmentalists. They lend assurance to growers who have weathered immense uncertainty and financial jeopardy amid the pandemic and related economic fallout for the tourism and hospitality sector.

“These changes to VESCO, while minor, provide that level of certainty that they know they can move forward with – and I think that’s positive,” Martini said. “I wish my crystal ball was clear, but it isn’t. We’re going to have to figure this out as we go.”

Residents concerned with vineyard development and environmental advocates have focused less on the proposed tweaks than calls for a broader and stronger ordinance that would take more aggressive stands on protection of native trees and groundwater. They also want closer monitoring of compliance with existing rules.

“What we’ll hear on Tuesday is that this doesn’t do enough,” said Hopkins. “Those things don’t belong in VESCO. But we need to address them.”

Kimberly Burr, a volunteer with the Green Valley Creek restoration project, which works to reclaim the watershed in and around Forestville in west Sonoma County, called the proposed changes a distraction from moves she said were more urgently needed to rein in environmental abuses in the wine industry.

She cited “clearing, logging, grubbing, deep ripping, water demand, alteration of drainage patterns, massive re-grading of hillsides and low lands, the application of chemicals, diversions of water supply, repetitive discing, encroachment on highly sensitive waterways.”

“County leaders need to focus on becoming as resilient as possible in the face of the climate crisis, drought and extinction,” Burr said in an email. “Spending time and money to streamline development and improve the financial health of an already prosperous industry is valuable time – very sadly misappropriated.”

Gore and Hopkins, who lead an ad hoc committee dedicated to addressing VESCO issues, have said they will take up other concerns with industry activity next year. As is, wide-scale tree removal for vineyard development requires state or local authorization.

Burr said the plan to push environmental concerns, including oak woodland destruction, into 2021 and perhaps beyond will “delay indefinitely the changes so long needed.”

The ordinance has been at the center of a tug of war since it was approved by the Board of Supervisors in 2000. At that time and in revisions since, environmental interests have long complained that they come out on the losing end. Growers, for their part, have grumbled about government overreach.

“Every time this comes up, people attack it,” Gore said. “But they really want VESCO to be an environmental measure for all things environment.

“Some people want this to be a much bigger law and regulation than it is. This is already the most stringent law for an ag product in Sonoma County.”

The changes that will be brought forward Tuesday are varied, but include key elements: nixing a requirement for environmental studies of vineyard replanting on already farmed land; strengthened language around setbacks for protected streams and waterways; and the allowance of vineyards within setbacks using modified planting procedures.

The lighter-touch method, known as “pluck and plant,” is billed as less environmentally disruptive than the “deep ripping” that is often used to prepare vineyard ground. The proposal would also make changes to permit renewal timelines, extending, for example, grading permits, to five years from three years.

“Nobody is more efficient — nobody’s more innovative than farmers. That’s what they do,” Martini said. ”All they need is certainty.”