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Paul Hobbs LP, Clearcutting, and Vineyards

In the last few weeks Paul Hobbs LP has been clearcutting the former properties of John Jenkel along Highway 116 near Graton Road in order to put in more vineyards. The clearcutting along 116 in Graton has shocked and outraged many West County residents. Paul Hobbs LP has also clearcut 10 acres of ridge top timberland, Hillick Ranch, between Forestville and Guerneville, without securing the necessary permits required to fulfill the Timberland Conversion Permit process. A stop work notice has been placed on this project. The clearcutting of 10 acres of forests may be subject to prosecution by the County District Attorney. These actions point to the deficiencies of the regulations of Sonoma County that govern these processes.

In the 1970s this county was voted by the electorate to be a right to farm locale. This was in response to the rapid expansion of Rohnert Park and other towns that were possibly threatening the diverse agricultural lands that made Sonoma County so special. Today this diverse agriculture is 90% vineyards and wineries. And today, 80% of wine sold from Sonoma County is controlled by seven multi-national corporations.

Agriculture is under the purview of the Agriculture Commission and is not subject to the rules and regulations that the rest of the county must follow. To wit:

  • Paul Hobbs LP could clearcut Jenkel’s former property without permits besides approval from CalFire and the Agriculture Commission because it did not include timberland. At least two redwood trees up to 6’ in diameter were cut down by Hobbs LP. Tens, if not hundreds, of other trees were cut down. A plant survey was made by the Ag Commissioner’s office, but to our knowledge no survey was done for wildlife and especially nesting birds and raptors.
  • Highway 116 in Graton is a state designated Scenic Corridor, but our county has determined that agriculture (read vineyards) is exempt.
  • Paul Hobbs LP’s clearcut of Jenkel’s former property is also not subject to the Sonoma County Tree Ordinance. Another Agriculture exemption.

In addition to these issues directly tied to Hobbs LP clear cut of property along 116 in Graton, other issues are very relevant.

  • Sediment control and storm water runoff in this county is closely monitored in this county except for Agriculture (read vineyards). Any construction site that let a significant amount of sediment runoff into our waterways would be subject to criminal enforcement. Agriculture is self-regulated and is supposed to follow BMP’s (Best Management Practices). Except in egregious events, there is no enforcement.
  • New vineyards may be planted subject to just a ministerial permit. This means that any proposed vineyard that does not involve a timberland conversion, will be approved subject to the zoning rules with no oversight but an approval by the agriculture commissioner and a promise by the owner that due diligence will be taken, regardless of the consequences to our environment. No consideration of cumulative effects or water availability is allowed.
  • The 25’ setback from the banks of our creeks, streams, and rivers that was put into place to protect riparian habitat is instead impacted in many cases by tractor turn arounds causing disturbed soil that could silt up the waters in the streams.

The actions of Paul Hobbs LP regarding the 10 acre unpermitted clearcut and the county’s response will be closely watched. There are many good and conscientious grape growers and wine makers. It is time to include this industry in the same context of the rest of the county and to protect our environment.

John Roberts