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Monday, October 31, 2011

Sonoma County Vine Hill Vineyard Conversion

Loopholes & Bad Apples

By Stephen J. Fuller-Rowell
Jane E. Nielson, Ph.D.
Bulldozers scraped the trees off another parcel on Highway 116 north of Sebastopol in October for another vineyard. In a letter to West County newspapers, Supervisor Efren Carrillo expressed outrage at this flouting of environmental rules and regulations. Even as Chair of Sonoma County Board of Supervisors, there was little he could do to immediately halt this recent devastation, other than calling in the District Attorney after the fact.

It is no coincidence that this land on the corner of Vine Hill Road is in escrow, apparently being sold to the same grape-grower who used questionable ‘legal’ tactics to take land further south along Highway 116 away from landowner John Jenkel, and then ripped all the trees out before anyone could stop him.

But the problem isn’t the occasional ‘bad apple’. In recent years, the County rules governing land use have been slanted in favor of conversion to grapes and other development. The result has been large-scale clearing of the land that is alarming the public, and which the County now seems unwilling to stop. Stripping parcels of all vegetation is allowed with little or no regard for the direct and cumulative impacts on neighbors, creeks, trees and wildlife.

Scientific studies have established that poorly regulated or unregulated tree removal, well development, and other such activities can have major effects on drainage and flows in creeks, can cause erosion and pollution, and can induce growth in inappropriate areas.

Nevertheless, our decision-makers have ensured, perhaps under pressure from powerful interests, that County planning staff must look at many of these activities with blinders on. Planners may not use their judgment and professional experience to ask the obvious questions and conduct reasonable research into activities that may be more than they appear. This is what is called a ‘ministerial’ process. Has the applicant checked all the right boxes? If yes, the permits are issued.

Unique Eco-system
Vine Hill Manzanita
For more than 70 years, botanists and horticulturalists have recognized the unique ecological character of the Vine Hill area. Rare and endangered plants such as, Vine Hill Ceanothus and Vine Hill Clarkia bear its name as a testament to the special conditions found there. Sadly, now that the land has been illegally cleared, before any review could be done, we will never learn what plants were growing there.

A ‘ministerial’ process usually means no plant survey is done and the informed public has no opportunity to review or comment. We need to know what we and future generations are losing when projects like this are approved.

In addition, Sonoma County rules do not embrace the principles widely accepted elsewhere: that we must look at the impacts of an entire project, even if the applicant tries to disguise the development by chopping it up into small, seemingly harmless little packages, a practice otherwise known as ‘piece-mealing’. Activities that have the potential to cause significant impacts must be subject to an initial study that reveals all potential effects of the final project build-out, so that negative environmental impacts can be properly managed for the good of all.
Even when appropriate regulations are in force, many contain large loopholes or exceptions for certain development activities.

In an age when regulatory staff have been adversely affected by constrained budgets, time and again we see delay or lack of enforcement of laws on the books. There are ‘bad apples’ out there. They have learned that the risks of flagrantly ignoring the rules are low and the consequences minimal.

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