by Efren Carrillo
In Sonoma County, most farmers and vineyard owners take the time, and incur the expense, to have their projects properly vetted by state and local regulators. This protects our community and environment, their interests, and ensures sustainability – which is a cornerstone of what makes Sonoma County special. Unfortunately, the actions of an individual can sometimes reflect badly on the farming sector, harming those who toil tirelessly to follow the rules.
This week, a bulldozer laid waste to the former Davis Tree Farm property on Vinehill Road at Highway 116 near Graton. Behind a stand of shielding eucalyptus trees, the machine ripped ground and uprooted hundreds of Christmas trees to clear the land. This began in the mist and continued as rain poured down with no apparent erosion control plan or protections. Downstream from the property is the Atascadero Creek and its dwindling coho salmon population.
When contacted, the bulldozer operator claimed not to need permits for this process as the intention was to replant the trees. Whether that is the case will be determined by authorities with the expertise to examine what the law requires and then to take appropriate enforcement action as a result. But, one need not wait for a legal determination before expressing outrage on the insensitivity and environmental depravity of this conduct.
In recent weeks, representatives of Paul Hobbs winery and the property owner, Del Davis, visited both the Planning Department and the Agricultural Commissioner’s vineyard permitting section to find out what was required to convert this property to vines and clear up prior code violations on the property.
Both departments confirmed that clear direction was given that conversion would require a Timber Harvest Plan (THP) from CalFire, an environmental review required with THPs, and a vineyard permit.
The winery representatives and property owner were both put on notice of the required steps. And someone ordered a bulldozer.
This is not the first time that Paul Hobbs has been in the news for his aggressive pursuit of vineyard land. Recently, a great deal of news coverage was brought to bear over his acquisition of John Jenkel’s property by legal, but questionable, means. While many people, including me, were appalled by this situation, there was little County regulators could have done to prevent that event. Later, we watched mature trees bulldozed to make way for vineyard following the property acquisition.
More alarming to me was the clear cutting of redwood stands on the Pocket Canyon property where Paul Hobbs maintains a residence. This activity took place mere weeks before the Jenkel incident. Today, stacks of redwood trunks remain on this property where trees once lived. Mr. Hobbs began the required process, and received a tentative THP from CalFire. Before completing the needed steps by obtaining a use and vineyard permit from the County of Sonoma- which would have required a public process- he pushed forward with his tree removal.
This most recent effort to skirt the regulations of CalFire and Sonoma County by ripping out trees at the Vinehill Road property must not be ignored. Mr. Hobbs confirmed that he is in escrow on the site. It appears to be a business decision – that fines are cheaper and more expedient than the regulatory process – that resulted in the bulldozer. It would take a huge leap of faith to give him or the property owner the benefit of doubt where this incident is involved, and Mr. Hobbs has not earned my faith.
Rather, Paul Hobbs has shown a blatant disregard for Sonoma County, its resources, his fellow vintners, and community sentiment. Many Sonoma County residents share my shock and disbelief. His disregard extends to the reputation of honest farmers and grape growers who obey the laws and contribute to our local economic health. His practices also offer reputable farmers a competitive disadvantage by unfairly skirting established rules.
Community outrage is appropriate.
With the many responsible grape growers in our community who embrace the shared environmental ethic that makes Sonoma County -and its wines- so unique, it makes little sense to support the product of one who so blatantly disregards our community values. I will never knowingly drink or purchase Paul Hobbs Wines. To me, his wines are unpalatable as they carry strong tones of environmental harm with overwhelming notes of arrogance.