Posted on Categories Forests, Habitats, Land UseTags , , , ,

Sonoma County couple ordered to pay nearly $600,000 for damage to protected property

Mary Callahan, THE PRESS DEMOCRAT

Sonoma Land Trust Stewardship Director Bob Neale had seen pictures.

So he thought he had a good idea of what awaited him when he went out to inspect a protected piece of land on the north flank of Sonoma Mountain a few years back. A concerned neighbor had reported heavy equipment and questionable activity on property protected under a conservation easement and, thus, intended to remain in its natural state.

But while photos conveyed “a sense of it, it’s nothing compared to actually seeing it,” Neale, a soft-spoken man, said of the environmental damage he witnessed that day in 2014. “I was not prepared.”

Neale and an associate found a patch of private landscape above Bennett Valley scraped down to bedrock in some places and a trenched, 180-year-old oak uprooted and bound so it could be dragged to an adjoining parcel to adorn the grounds of a newly constructed estate home, according to court documents.

That heritage oak and two others the landowners sought to move over a haul road they bulldozed through the previously undisturbed site all died, along with a dozen more trees and other vegetation, according to court records.

The damage would eventually prompt Sonoma Land Trust to sue the property owners, Peter and Toni Thompson, a highly unusual step for the private nonprofit. Last month, it prevailed in what representatives hailed as a landmark legal victory.

The court battle came well after the full extent of the losses was discovered on the 34-acre conservation property. Grading for the haul road in 2014 removed more than 3,000 cubic yards of dirt and rock, the ruling found. No permits were obtained for any of the work, according to court documents.

The Thompsons had construction crews dredge an existing lake on their adjacent 47-acre residential spread, known as Henstooth Ranch, and dump the soil on the protected parcel, extending the haul road to accomplish that work, according to court documents.

“It was,” said Neale, a 25-year veteran in the open space field, “really the most willful, egregious violation of a conservation easement I’ve ever seen.”

In his blunt 57-page ruling, Sonoma County Superior Court Judge Patrick Broderick sided strongly with the land trust, calling out the Thompsons for “knowing and intentional” violations of a legally binding conservation deal. He said the couple had shown a “persistent failure to tell the truth” as the case unfolded and had “demonstrated an arrogance and complete disregard for the mandatory terms of the easement.”

Broderick ordered the couple to pay more than $586,000 in damages toward environmental restoration and other costs outlined in a judgment finalized last week.

Read more at https://www.pressdemocrat.com/news/9556824-181/sonoma-county-couple-ordered-to

Posted on Categories AirTags ,

Owner of Healdsburg’s Wilson Winery hit with $56,000 in pollution fines

Paul Payne, THE PRESS DEMOCRAT
A Healdsburg vintner with a history of breaking environmental laws agreed Thursday to pay about $56,000 for an illegal burn in 2016 that drew a large emergency response and violated air quality regulations.
Ken Wilson, co-owner of the namesake Wilson Winery and nine other boutique wineries, was fined for burning 31 debris piles over several days on his Shiloh Road property in Windsor.
The piles, created while clearing land for vineyard development, exceeded the size allowed by the Bay Area Air Quality Management District and contained material that was not properly dried. The fires had the potential to grow out of control, prosecutors said.
“The quick response from our fire agencies prevented the spread of fire to other properties in the area,” Sonoma County District Attorney Jill Ravitch said in a written statement.
Wilson, who was sentenced to jail time in 2002 for allowing soil erosion into a tributary of the Russian River, called the incident an “unfortunate thing.” He said it stemmed from his confusion over differences in the rules governing burning in Windsor and Healdsburg.
Read more at: Owner of Healdsburg’s Wilson Winery hit with $56,000 in pollution fines | The Press Democrat

Posted on Categories Sustainable LivingTags , ,

Civil grand jury says Sonoma County’s Environmental Health staff overworked

J.D. Morris, THE PRESS DEMOCRAT
The section of Sonoma County government responsible for everything from monitoring the Russian River for toxic algae blooms to inspecting the safety of local restaurants is overworked and insufficiently staffed, challenges that hamper its effectiveness, according to a recently released civil grand jury report.
In its latest annual analysis published late last month, the 19-member civilian panel determined the county’s Department of Health Services’ Environmental Health and Safety section faced a staffing squeeze, particularly for middle management jobs, and relied too much on trainees to play key roles, among other findings. The little known but critically important government section has found it difficult to recruit and retain qualified employees, placing too great a burden on current staff members who suffer from “reduced job satisfaction” as well as “low morale,” the report said.
Matthew Stone, the grand jury foreman, said the report’s findings continue to show that the county has yet to fully recover from its recession-era belt tightening. “They’ve got a whole bunch of sort of big-picture priorities, but they’ve been starving their foot soldiers a little bit,” Stone said. “And that’s a concern.”
The section faces budget restrictions and hiring difficulties that, in the grand jury’s estimation, result in some positions being underfilled, meaning the job is held by a trainee rather than a more senior staff member.
Read more at: Civil grand jury says Sonoma County’s Environmental Health staff overworked | The Press Democrat

Posted on Categories Air, Sustainable Living, TransportationTags , , ,

Santa Rosa suspends new BoDean asphalt contract to speed resolution of dispute

Kevin McCallum, THE PRESS DEMOCRAT
Santa Rosa is holding up a nearly $800,000 contract with a local asphalt plant until its owners comply with laws the city says it has violated going back a decade.
The City Council approved a new contract with BoDean Co. Tuesday but suspended its execution until the company resolves several outstanding building code and permit violations on its Maxwell Drive property.
The council took the unusual step even though city staff warned that it would prevent the city from utilizing the most convenient local source of asphalt during the height of the summer road construction season.
Read more at: Santa Rosa suspends new BoDean asphalt contract to speed resolution of dispute | The Press Democrat

Posted on Categories Agriculture/Food System, Sustainable LivingTags , , , ,

Officials work to enforce Roundup rules in Sonoma County 

Stephen Nett, THE PRESS DEMOCRAT

This spring, a court ruled that the California Environmental Protection Agency can move ahead with its decision to list glyphosate as a cancer-causing agent, a carcinogen, under Proposition 65, after reviewing a body of scientific studies on glyphosate’s potential health risks. The World Health Organization, after its own independent review, took a similar step in 2015.

On a sunny warm May afternoon, Andrew Smith drives around the tree lined, well-tended neighborhoods of Sonoma, on the lookout for a lethal ritual. In a green vest, white Sonoma County Department of Agriculture truck and sunglasses, he’s looking for workers spraying pesticides to kill plants, insects and animals. He stops to make pesticide safety inspections. And when he meets maintenance gardeners using pesticides without a license, he tells them they have to stop until they have one.
Unlicensed pesticide use is a big and growing problem. And Smith, a senior agricultural biologist, acknowledges, his is not a particularly popular job.Armed with colorful booklets, Smith introduces the license, and licensing process, in English or Spanish, as necessary. Sometimes he writes a notice of violation, which can carry a financial penalty. Sometimes, they listen. Sometimes, they turn their back and walk away.
Apart from the maintenance gardeners he approaches, few people even know he’s out there doing it.
But Smith, who grew up in Sonoma County, takes the responsibility seriously. Like his co-workers at the Department of Agriculture, and their counterparts in counties across the state, he’s on the front line to enforce the state rules that protect people and other life in the environment from being poisoned.
Read more at: Officials work to enforce Roundup rules in Sonoma County | The Press Democrat

Posted on Categories Agriculture/Food System, Land Use, Water, WildlifeTags , , , , , , , ,

Here's how big wine gets to avoid environmental rules in Napa

Alastair Bland, KCET

According to Anderson, vineyard managers frequently install drainage systems incorrectly, fail to plant required cover crops to control erosion, incorrectly place deer fences in a way that prevents free passage of smaller wildlife, and use pesticides illegally. She says erosion control measures often fail to work, causing loose sediment to wash into creeks. There it can smother gravel beds used by spawning salmon and steelhead, which have almost vanished from North Bay watersheds. Many biologists have pointed to vineyards as a leading cause of the fish declines.

In 2006, Napa County officials issued a permit for The Caves at Soda Canyon, a new winery in the hills east of the city of Napa. As most such project permits do, the document set strict limits on how the developer could build his winery.
But The Caves’ owner Ryan Waugh allegedly ignored some of these limitations. Waugh dug an unpermitted cave into a mountain, and hosted guests at unapproved ridgetop tasting patios. After county officials became aware of the violations, they ordered Waugh in 2014 to block off (but not fill in) the illegal cave, stop the unauthorized wine tastings and muffle a noisy generator.
Neighbors had complained about the generator’s din, claiming that Waugh had promised years earlier to connect his facility to silent power lines. They’re primarily concerned, however, about the winery’s impacts on local traffic and congestion.
County documents report that Waugh followed through on all orders to correct the violations (something neighbors, who say they can still hear the generator, dispute). Then, Waugh submitted a request for a modification to his permit, and in April, the Napa County Planning Commission voted to approve it. The new permit brings the unauthorized components of his operation into full legal compliance while also increasing The Cave’s annual production limit from 30,000 gallons of wine to 60,000. The decision is a win for Waugh, who has reportedly put his winery on the market for $12.5 million.
Neighbors say that laws don’t apply to people invested in Napa County’s influential wine industry.
“You can just drill an unpermitted cave and have unpermitted tastings, and just get retroactive approval from the county, and get more allowed production than you initially had,” says Anthony Arger, who lives nearby. Arger is concerned that The Caves’ enhanced use permits will lead to a dangerous increase in vehicle use on Soda Canyon Road.
The county’s decision to clear Waugh’s record while allowing him to enlarge his business illuminates what Arger and other community activists say is part of a countywide problem. They argue that Napa County officials, especially those in the Planning, Building and Environmental Services department, collude with the wine industry, ignoring violations of local rules, to increase wine production and tourist visits at the expense of the environment and local residents’ health and safety.
Read more at: Here’s How Big Wine Gets To Avoid Environmental Rules in Napa | KCET

Posted on Categories WaterTags , , ,

PG&E to pay $120,000 for Paulin Creek spill

Paul Payne, THE PRESS DEMOCRAT
PG&E has been ordered to pay $120,000 to settle claims that it allowed oil from an underground transformer to contaminate a Santa Rosa creek, prosecutors said Thursday.
A complaint filed in Sonoma County Superior Court alleges the spill into Paulin Creek happened during intense storms in February 2015.Crews were repairing a failed transformer at Sleepy Hollow Drive when oil leaked into a storm drain and flowed into the creek, prosecutors alleged.
PG&E failed to “immediately notify proper authorities of the discharge,” according to a statement from District Attorney Jill Ravitch.
Under the terms of the settlement approved by Judge Allan Hardcastle, PG&E will pay $80,000 in civil penalties and $40,000 in investigative and enforcement costs.
Source: PG&E to pay $120,000 for Santa Rosa creek spill | The Press Democrat

Posted on Categories ForestsTags , , Leave a comment on Bill by State Sen. Mike McGuire seeks to make redwood burl poaching a felony

Bill by State Sen. Mike McGuire seeks to make redwood burl poaching a felony

Derek Moore, THE PRESS DEMOCRAT
Poachers who target the knobby burls on old-growth redwood trees could face stiffer punishment if they are caught under legislation introduced this week by a North Coast lawmaker.
State Sen. Mike McGuire, D-Healdsburg, is proposing to make burl poaching a mandatory felony crime punishable by jail time and a fine of up to $10,000.
“These poachers are butchering healthy, ancient, old-growth redwoods,” said McGuire, who compared the practice to killing elephants for their tusks.
Redwood burls are crucial to the health and propagation of the majestic trees, forming at the base of trunks to shoot forth new saplings and roots. They also protect trees by forming protective layers over damaged wood.
Burls also are used to make a range of products, including tables and other furniture. That has created a lucrative market for the wood and drawn the attention of poachers, who use chainsaws and other devices to carve the prized wood away from the trees, with no regard to the damage the practice causes.
Read more via Bill by State Sen. Mike McGuire seeks to | The Press Democrat.

Posted on Categories WaterTags , Leave a comment on Washing toxin into storm drain results in environmental enforcement

Washing toxin into storm drain results in environmental enforcement

SONOMA COUNTY GAZETTE
District Attorney Jill Ravitch announced today that defendant Trius Diagnostic Imaging, Inc. of Stockton has resolved a civil environmental enforcement case that occurred on 10/29/13 at Spring Creek Medical Plaza, located at 1144 Sonoma Avenue in Santa Rosa.The investigation revealed that while a piece of radiology equipment was being moved from one of the medical offices and being loaded onto a truck for transport to Trius’ Stockton facility, Trius employees spilled an unknown liquid.
Rather than report the spill to the authorities, the employees hosed the spilled material into a storm drain leading to Spring Creek. A citizen noticed the spill and contacted the Santa Rosa Police Department. Officers responded, along with the Hazardous Materials Team from the Santa Rosa Fire Department.  Spring Creek Medical Plaza owners used a private company to clean up the spilled material which contained some petroleum.  First responders could not determine the quantity of the spill or whether it entered Spring Creek.
District Attorney Ravitch stated, “Businesses may not use storm drains to dispose of hazardous materials because all storm drains flow to our creeks.  We will take all appropriate enforcement measures to protect our creeks.”
The agreement reached between Trius and the District Attorney’s Office requires that Trius Diagnostics Imaging, Inc. pay a total of $50,661.97 in penalties and clean up costs. Of this amount, Trius will pay a penalty for an unlawful business activity of $7,500, clean-up costs in the amount of $34,818.97 to the business owners of the Spring Creek Medical Plaza and $5,343 in investigation costs to the City of Santa Rosa and the Sonoma County District Attorney’s Office.  The defendant will pay restitution in the amount of $3,000 to an account that will benefit local watershed projects in Sonoma County.  Additionally the agreement requires that Trius must train its employees annually regarding reporting hazardous materials releases and reporting emergency spills.
The case was prosecuted by the Environmental and Consumer Law Division of the District Attorney’s Office and Deputy District Attorney Ann Gallagher White, assisted by District Attorney Investigator Lisa Chapman.  Detective Mark Azzouni of Santa Rosa Police Department’s Environmental Crimes Unit  headed the investigation.
via Washing Toxin into Storm Drain results in Environmental Enforcement.