A plan to convert a Sebastopol apple orchard into a vineyard is causing concern among parents whose children attend several schools bordering the property.
Many parents learned of the project last week when a house and barn on the Watertrough Road property were demolished, said Christine Dzilvelis, whose daughter attends nearby Orchard View School.
"Word spread like wildfire and within two or three days we had dozens and dozens of families on board (opposed) to this," said Dzilvelis.
Paul Hobbs Winery purchased the property in 2012 and applied to develop the vineyard in March. The property is situated across from several schools including Apple Blossom School, Tree House Hollow Pre-school, Orchard View School and SunRidge Charter School.
Parents started an online petition seeking to halt the vineyard April 25, garnering more than 170 signatures by Tuesday.
"Nobody wants their child exposed to something that could hurt them," said Dzilvelis. "This is hundreds of students and not just one school."
Agriculture Commissioner Tony Linegar said the permit for the vineyard project is still under review, but the winery plans to use methods that would actually reduce the amount of pesticide substances drifting off the property.
"The type of equipment used for this conventional orchard leads to much more potential for drift," Linegar said. "The fact that a vineyard is going in exponentially reduces the potential for pesticide exposure."
Tara Sharp, a spokeswoman for Paul Hobbs Winery, said the winery's goal is to be "good stewards of the land."
Paul Hobbs Winery has come under fire in the past for not obtaining the proper permits for some of the work it has done on other properties purchased for vineyard use, including clear-cutting trees.
The vineyard will be maintained sustainably, and the winery is drafting a written agreement with the school district to perform no work during school hours, Sharp said.
Parents remain unconvinced.
"I think there's a lack of communication between the agricultural community and the residents within the area," said Nicole Baum, the mother of a SunRidge School kindergartner.
Baum said part of the reason her family migrated north from Southern California was to find an environment with cleaner air.
Twin Hills Union School District superintendent Barbara Bickford confirmed the district is in talks with both the agricultural commissioner and the winery to discuss neighbors' concerns.
"I am very confident we will continue to provide a safe and healthy environment for our students and teachers," said Bickford.
The winery will be using wettable sulfur which is considered a "soft" pesticide, resulting in significantly less product going into the ground, said Sharp.
The winery also plans to install organic trellised apple trees, and hopes to work with educators to allow students the opportunity to help harvest the apples, Sharp said.
"Hobbs understands how important the orchard and the identity of the apples is to the school's namesake," said Linegar. "I think it'd be a great learning experience for the kids."
Linegar will meet with the school district and parents at 5 p.m. this evening at his office to discuss concerns over the vineyard project.
"We're just concerned parents," said Estrella Phegan, who serves on the pre-school board and is the mother of a pre-schooler. "We're trying to find out (whether) what we have now is better or worse than what we will be getting."