Alastair Bland, NEWS DEEPLY
Residents are concerned that plans to cut down 14,000 oak trees to make way for grapevines will impact groundwater, fish habitat and climate change mitigation.
In the small community of Circle Oaks, California, a few miles east of the wine-soaked Napa Valley, residents are fuming over a wealthy Texas couple’s plans to cut down 14,000 adult oak trees and replant the cleared woodland with 209 acres (85 hectares) of irrigated grapevines. The project, opponents warn, will destroy fish and wildlife habitat, reduce the environment’s resilience to climate change, and drain groundwater reserves.
“They’re going to be using about two times the water our community uses,” says Ron Tamarisk, who has lived in the small town of Circle Oaks with his wife, Nancy, since the 1960s. Tamarisk says the community’s wells have never run dry before, but locals are concerned the proposed vineyard will deplete their supply.
“This is going to dewater Milliken Creek,” says Chris Malan, who lives in a rural unincorporated area just east of the city of Napa and very close to the project site. She is referring to a stream that feeds Milliken Reservoir, from which the city of Napa receives water.
The couple behind the project, Craig Hall and Kathryn Walt Hall, are already well established in the local wine industry. Craig Hall, who has led a career in Texas as a real estate developer, told Dallas News in 2014 that he expected to sell as much as $50 million in wines in 2015, mainly through the couple’s Hall and Walt wine labels. Now, he and his wife’s new project, first introduced in 2006, is on the verge of becoming reality. The proposal to expand their Walt Ranch vineyard was approved in December by Napa County’s board of supervisors.
Locals are outraged by the county’s lenience toward the wine industry in general, which many sources claim exerts political influence over county decision making.
“If this project goes through, it establishes a precedent that a rich newcomer can come in and get their way,” says Randy Dunn, a resident of the small town of Angwin, in the hills northeast of Napa. Dunn is also a winemaker. He grows 35 acres of grapes, mostly cabernet, and says he felled a single oak tree to plant his current vines in the mid-1990s.
The Walt Ranch developers initially planned to cut down almost 30,000 trees. They downsized the plan last year in response to general opposition and to questions about the legality of how the new vines would be irrigated. There was talk for a time of pumping in water from another watershed entirely, that of Putah Creek, a Sacramento River tributary.
Read more at: Water Concerns Arise from Napa Area Vineyard’s Plan to Fell — Water Deeply
Paul Payne, THE PRESS DEMOCRAT
Two Sonoma County men are accused of causing hundreds of thousands of dollars in environmental damage when they cleared about a half-acre of Boy Scout land in Cazadero to grow marijuana.
Nicholas Henderson, 30, and John Henry, 31, are charged with felony cultivation, possession for sale of marijuana and malicious mischief in connection with the garden, discovered in August at the 350-acre Camp Royaneh.
Deputies acting on a tip from neighbors found more than 100 trees sawed off chest-high with logs stacked between the stumps to create a terrace effect. Pot plants growing in burlap bags were irrigated by pipes leading from a neighboring house that also fed a large plastic storage tank.
A consultant estimated the cost to clean up the property and prevent erosion into nearby Austin Creek would be more than $280,000.
“They took a whole hillside and clear-cut the trees,” said Jason Lewis, a prosecution witness for the San Francisco Bay Area Council of the Boy Scouts of America.
Lewis said the plants went undiscovered because they were in a remote section of the 90-year-old camp. Each summer, the camp hosts about 1,500 children, he said.
Read more at: Men accused of secretly growing pot at Boy | The Press Democrat
David Abbott, SONOMA WEST TIMES
Paul Hobbs is making news in the West County again, as, on the heels of a $100,000 settlement with Sonoma County over questionable vineyard conversion practices, a lawsuit filed against the winemaker and the county by a group of parents in the Twin Hills Union School District will head to court.
A hearing will take place on March 2 at 9 a.m. in department 17 at 3035 Cleveland Ave., Santa Rosa.
The lawsuit, filed in December 2013 by the Watertrough Children’s Alliance, alleges that the county failed in its oversight duties by issuing a permit for the transformation of a 48-acre apple orchard into 39 acres of grape vines.
“This is a major project and it should have a CEQA review. It’s a huge manipulation of the environment. Why shouldn’t it require CEQA?” WCA attorney Paul Carroll said. “It’s been applied to much smaller projects. Thirty-eight acres is a huge project right next to a school. Hobbs shouldn’t get a free ride.”
But the ride has not been exactly free for the internationally known vintner who has had his share of run-ins with regulatory agencies over several West County vineyard conversion projects.
On Feb. 2, the Sonoma County District Attorney’s office announced a $100,000 settlement with Hobbs over a civil environmental complaint filed on May 28, 2014, focused on conversion projects that took place from 2011 to 2013.
Read more via Hobbs conversion headed to court – Sonoma West Times and News: News.
Jeff Quackenbush, NORTH BAY BUSINESS JOURNAL
Sebastopol-based Paul Hobbs Wines on Friday said it has agreed to pay $100,000 to settle a 2013 lawsuit in which the county of Sonoma sought millions of dollars in damages over three west county vineyard projects.
The civil court settlement, a couple of weeks in progress, between the wine company and the District Attorney’s Office was signed by judge Nancy Case Shaffer on Friday.
“We’re happy to be done with it,” said wine company spokesman Christopher O’Gorman.
The county accused the company of letting soil erode into a stream during a project last year on a property off Watertrough Road near Sebastopol, clearing Davis Tree Farm off Highway 116 near Graton without a permit in 2011 and running afoul of land-use rules while clearing trees on Hillick Ranch near Guerneville.
Read more via Paul Hobbs to pay Sonoma County $100K to settle vineyard projects suit – North Bay Business Journal – North San Francisco Bay Area, Sonoma, Marin, Napa counties – Archive.
Mary Callahan, THE PRESS DEMOCRAT
Gov. Jerry Brown has signed legislation that includes Sonoma and three other North Coast counties in a pilot project allowing trees up to 24 inches in diameter to be felled without a formal timber harvest plan for fire prevention purposes.
Sponsored by Assemblyman Wes Chesbro, D-Arcata, the bill extends to Sonoma, Mendocino, Humboldt and Del Norte counties an exemption from certain forest protection laws previously authorized for 24 Sierra Nevada and other inland counties in the aftermath of last year’s devastating Rim fire in Yosemite National Park.
The Forest Fire Prevention Pilot Project Exemption is designed to permit property owners to more readily harvest smaller trees if the aim is to reduce forest fuel loads and avert the kind of calamitous blaze that scarred 250,000 acres in the Yosemite area last year.
“Because coastal forests are also vulnerable to catastrophic wild fires, it made sense to extend the pilot project to parts of the coast,” Chesbro, chairman of the Assembly Natural Resources Committee, said in a statement. “When it expires, we can conduct a more thorough analysis on how to move forward with forest fuel treatment policy. The legislation does not allow clear-cutting and imposes specific requirements to ensure over-cutting does not occur.”
The exemption is to be operable for a three-year period expected to start later this year, when the state Board of Forestry implements the final regulation, legislative staffers said.
You can reach Staff Writer Mary Callahan at 521-5249 or mary.callahan@press democrat.com.
via Gov. Jerry Brown eases timber-cutting rules to prevent | The Press Democrat.
Mary Callahan, THE PRESS DEMOCRAT
A series of environmental and regulatory blunders that brought unfavorable attention to Sebastopol winery owner Paul Hobbs in recent years could cost the renowned winemaker millions of dollars in civil penalties if a pending lawsuit filed by the Sonoma County District Attorney’s Office prevails.
The District Attorney’s Environmental and Consumer Law Division lodged the civil complaint in May, saying Hobbs and his company “recklessly and carelessly” violated state and local land-use regulations in clearing trees and other vegetation from three prospective vineyard properties in west Sonoma County.
A spokeswoman for District Attorney Jill Ravitch said the aim of the May 28 suit is to safeguard the environment and protect the public interest by ensuring compliance with environmental rules governing vineyard development and other human interventions.
But attorneys for Hobbs said the case seeks “exorbitant and disproportionate civil penalties” in excess of $13 million, and does so improperly, suing on behalf of state agencies for which it has no authority to do so, according to court filings. Hobbs’ lawyers also said they intend to dispute the underlying facts as presented by the district attorney.
via DA files environmental lawsuit against Sebastopol winery owner | The Press Democrat.
Lori A. Carter, THE PRESS DEMOCRAT
With a little twisting and a lot of heavy lifting, the rare Cotati chimera redwood was hoisted out of the ground Thursday and loaded on a flatbed truck for a short move to its new home across the street, much to the delight of preservationists who fought for months to save the unusual tree.
“It’s a nice, happy ending,” said Tom Stapleton, an arborist who studies the rare green-and-white trees. He and Cotati historian Prue Draper led the effort to protect the Cotati specimen from the log pile.
The 56-foot tree, planted in the 1940s, was growing inside the federal safety zone for a second side track planned for SMART commuter train service that is planned to begin running in 2016.
Sonoma-Marin Area Rail Transit initially planned to cut the tree down, based on its original arborist report that said the tree wasn’t particularly rare and moving it or working near it would kill it. After community members raised concerns and steadily pushed SMART for months with scientific evidence of the tree’s uniqueness, the agency agreed to relocate the tree and care for it on SMART land.
On Thursday, after more than a week of prep work, a huge crane lifted the tree using straps linked under the tree’s mesh-encased root ball and moved it — in an upright position — to a waiting truck.
via Cotati chimera redwood uprooted to safety (w/video) | The Press Democrat.
Robert Digitale, THE PRESS DEMOCRAT
June 3, 2014, 7:29 PM
Artesa Vineyards and Winery of Napa has shelved its hotly disputed plans to plant a vineyard on forest land near Annapolis and has put the 324-acre property on the market for $1.5 million, the company announced Tuesday.
The decision was hailed by environmentalists, who last year persuaded a Sonoma County judge to rule that the vineyard project’s environmental studies were flawed.
“For us and the forest, it’s great news,” Friends of the Gualala River President Chris Poehlmann said of the winery’s decision.
via Artesa vineyard plans near Annapolis shelved | The Press Democrat.
Gaye LeBaron, THE PRESS DEMOCRAT
Here’s the “nut graf” for this column, as we say in the trade: It has been said, by respected historians, that forests were so dense in the eastern part of what would become the United States that, before European settlement, a squirrel could travel from the Atlantic seaboard to the Mississippi River without touching the ground.
This is a terrific image, isn’t it?
Of course, we are now told, by iconoclastic bloggers, that it isn’t true. That the Native Americans cleared land just like the latecomers, that forests recede on their own and, I suppose, that no squirrel has that kind of stamina. Thus, the westbound squirrel, leaping from leafy treetop to treetop, passes into folklore. But the point is still taken. There were plenty of trees here in the 1600s. And most of them are gone.
The reason I bring this up is the current news that some of Santa Rosa Junior College’s majestic oaks, which have long defined that beautiful campus, are doomed.
This is admittedly very bad news. The account I read estimated they were about 100 years old. I’m not an arboreal scientist, but I do know that the SRJC campus was built on a 40-acre parcel of “oaks and wildflowers” that was owned by the Chamber of Commerce and designated for a park called Luther Burbank Creation Gardens, honoring the famed horticulturist who died in 1926.
via LeBaron: SRJC oaks just the latest to be mourned | The Press Democrat.
Lori A. Carter, THE PRESS DEMOCRAT
Standing inconspicuously beside a block wall across the street from a glass shop in Cotati is one of the rarest living life forms in the world, an albino chimera coast redwood tree.
Researchers say fewer than 10 of the genetically mutated trees are known to exist.
But if SMART’s rail plans proceed, the tree — the largest of its kind — soon will be cut down so commuter trains can safely zoom past.
“This tree is irreplaceable,” said Tom Stapleton, a former Sonoma County arborist who is now based in Amador County and studies the rare mutations. “They need to do something more than just cut it down.”
via Rare redwood faces chopping block in Cotati | PressDemocrat.com.