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Growing unease about a wave of vineyard projects that call for clear-cutting forested hillsides has Sonoma County officials calling for an emergency halt until new regulations are crafted.

Sonoma County Agricultural Commissioner Tony Linegar has proposed a four-month moratorium on vineyard projects that would remove trees from ridge tops or slopes greater than 15 percent.

The proposal goes to the Sonoma County Board of Supervisors on Tuesday.

Six applications calling for 370 acres of vineyards on forested hillsides have given county officials pause, particularly on the subject of whether current rules regarding tree removal are sufficient to prevent erosion into surrounding waterways.

"Some of the projects that we have in front of us now are proposing to remove large amount of trees. We're not talking about small acreages," Linegar said Thursday. "Rather than let these projects go forward and cause a problem with sedimentation, we'd rather be proactive."

How two large timberland conversion projects already in the pipeline could be affected by new county regulations is unclear. Napa's Artesa Vineyards wants to develop 151 acres of pinot noir and chardonnay vineyards, while Premier Pacific Vineyards' "Preservation Ranch" hopes to convert 1,800 of its 20,000 acres to vineyards.

Both the state Department of Forestry and Fire Protection and the county have oversight over the two Annapolis area projects.

"These projects could be subject to the new standards that we develop," Linegar said.

Officials in the agriculture and wine industries immediately questioned the need for the changes and wondered why they were not consulted.

"This has come as a real shock and surprise to the ag and grower community," said Lex McCorvey, executive director of the Sonoma County Farm Bureau. "I saw the board agenda and I thought, &‘What the heck is this?'"

Several wine industry leaders said they assume the moratorium is connected to the high-profile problems vintner Paul Hobbs faced last year with three vineyard projects. Hobbs angered many west county residents when he clear-cut properties in Graton, Sebastopol and Pocket Canyon, in some cases without permits. He has claimed he did nothing wrong.

But Sonoma County Supervisor Efren Carrillo, a sharp critic of Hobbs, said the moratorium had nothing to do with Hobbs' projects. The issue is simply whether county erosion regulations should be updated in the face of several pending projects, he said.

Carrillo said he was unaware of the details of the six projects that would be put on hold.

Linegar, who has been agricultural commissioner for three weeks, would not name projects or developers, but acknowledged those details are public information.

They are located in western and northern Sonoma County and Sonoma Valley, he said, and mostly involve the removal of oak, madrone and bay trees.

The urgency measure would go into effect immediately and expire May 31. Vineyard replantings and new vineyards that do not remove trees would be unaffected.

Proposed regulations are to be submitted to county supervisors by April 24.

Supervisor Mike McGuire, whose district encompasses the northern portion of the county, said he supports hitting the pause button.

"I think what this temporary timeout will allow is a thoughtful conversation about the issue that respects the rights of property owners and the greater environment," McGuire said.

There are about 59,000 acres of premium wine grapes in Sonoma County, down about 3,000 acres from the peak of a decade ago, said Nick Frey, president of the Sonoma County Winegrape Commission.

There has been a slight increase in grape prices recently as wine sales have strengthened and the smaller crops in recent years have reduced supply, Frey said. But the number of new applications prompting the moratorium represent a tiny fraction of county's forestlands, he said.

"There's not this insatiable demand for grapes for high-priced bottles of wines that's going to lead to lots of new acres," Frey said.

McGuire said it is his sense that the valley floors in much of the county have already been planted, and growers looking to expand are increasingly eyeing hillsides for their grapes.

"There has been a change in the landscape," McGuire said.

The county allows the development of hillside vineyards on slopes up to 50 percent under an erosion control ordinance passed in 2000. The ordinance, known as Vineyard Erosion and Sediment Control Ordinance, or VESCO, contains no restrictions on tree removal.

Trees near rivers and creeks are protected by regulations requiring vineyards be set back from banks 25 to 50 feet, depending on the slope and soil conditions.

The county's tree ordinance exempts agricultural.

Not including guidelines for tree removal in VESCO was an "oversight" because "clearly, tree removal affects erosion," Linegar said.

It's not just tree roots that keep hillside soil in place, but the canopy, as well, which slows rain before it hits the ground, Linegar said.

Adding a section to VESCO could address tree removal on slopes over 30 percent or also set some limit on the percentage of tree canopy that could be removed, he said.

Pete Opatz, vice president for Silverado Premium Properties in Napa, was heavily involved in the creation of the original VESCO regulations and said they have worked very well.

He said he's a little surprised the issue has come up now because removing trees to plant vines is often a bad idea given that tree root fungus can cause problems for grape growers long after the trees are gone.

But if the regulations can be strengthened through the process, he's all for it.

"We're happy to go back to the table to get something that will last another 12 years," he said.

You can reach Staff Writer Kevin McCallum at 521-5207 or kevin.mccallum@pressdemocrat.com.

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