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A citizens group is suing Sebastopol winemaker Paul Hobbs and Sonoma County over a 48-acre vineyard conversion project it says was approved in violation of state environmental laws.

Watertrough Children's Alliance alleges in court papers filed Monday that Agricultural Commissioner Tony Linegar erred in issuing a permit June 5 when the project should have undergone a full California Environmental Quality Act review.

The group said the conversion of a former apple orchard could pose significant impacts to wildlife and water quality and may expose children at five nearby schools to harmful pesticides.

The suit seeks an injunction to halt the conversion until a review is conducted and any potential problems associated with it are resolved.

"Our contention is the county's interpretation of its own statute runs afoul of CEQA," said Paul V. Carroll, an attorney for the Watertrough group.

Deputy County Counsel Jeff Brax said Hobbs was issued an over-the-counter permit under the county's Vineyard Control and Soil Erosion ordinance. Vineyard development is exempt from state environmental review, Brax said.

"It's a ministerial permit, not subject to CEQA," Brax said.

Paul Hobbs' spokesman Christopher O'Gorman said in a written statement the winemaker met all requirements. He vowed to "aggressively fight" the lawsuit he said threatens to undo established vineyard regulations in place for a decade.

O'Gorman said a similar vineyard conversion challenge was overruled by a Sonoma County judge in 2011.

"Ultimately, Paul Hobbs wants what is best for the grape-growing industry, the environment and its resident neighbors," O'Gorman said.

Hobbs bought the property last year as part of continued expansion of its west county holdings near Watertrough Road

Earlier this year, parents at Apple Blossom school complained about dust when the winemaker began uprooting trees and clearing the land. The county ordered Hobbs to halt the project this summer when blackberry brambles and bay laurel were cleared from protected areas above a creek.

Hobbs replanted the area and built a fence to address concerns about debris being blown onto school property. Work resumed in August.

O'Gorman admitted the errors but said the company has corrected them. He said Hobbs promised the vineyards are "one step away from organic."

Barbara Bickford, superintendent of Twin Hills Unified School District, said Hobbs has been a good neighbor.

Hobbs promised to give advance notice of any future pesticide spraying, limited the hours when spraying will be done and donated $1,000 to nearby Apple Blossom Elementary School's jog-a-thon.

"We have been able to work together for the safety of the students and the staff," she said.

But critics said the efforts fall short. Members of the Watertrough group, which is made up of parents and residents concerned about the impact of vineyard development in the county, say the region could suffer if the project is allowed to proceed.

The suit points to case law which makes all discretionary projects, including Hobbs' vineyard conversion, subject to state review. It seeks to set aside approval and require an analysis that could include the preparation of an environmental impact report.

"The county's failure to conduct a CEQA review to determine whether the project may have a significant effect on the environment violated CEQA and constituted a prejudicial abuse of discreation," the suit said.

You can reach Staff Writer Paul Payne at 568-5312 or paul.payne@pressdemocrat.com.