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.