Work is underway to repair the environmental damage done during a controversial orchard-to-vineyard conversion project near Sebastopol, winemaker Paul Hobbs said.
The county shut down the Watertrough Road project last month after inspectors found that bay laurel and blackberry bushes were removed illegally from a protected zone above a creek and that erosion-control measures were not in place.
Biologists have been to the property to assess the damage and formulate a plan to fix it, Hobbs said.
"The critical thing right now is to take care of this problem and get this thing buttoned up," Hobbs said. "That's my main concern."
Hobbs said he has hired San Rafael-based WRA Environmental Consultants to do the work, which will include replanting the riparian growth and installing a berm to prevent runoff into the creek.
Hobbs must first submit a plan to the county detailing the scope of the environmental work before the bulk of the restoration can begin, according to Sonoma County Agricultural Commissioner Tony Linegar.
The environmental work could be completed within weeks, Linegar said. Once the county is satisfied with the repairs, Hobbs can restart the conversion project.
"We were all shocked and surprised that they committed these violations," Linegar said. "I would hope he would be very careful about following all the regulations once the stop-work order is lifted. Certainly he is going to be under a lot of scrutiny."
Hobbs could face fines in the tens of thousands of dollars for the violations, Linegar said. State Fish and Wildlife authorities, the Regional Water Board, the National Marine Fisheries Service and the District Attorney's office are investigating.
Hobbs has faced criticism in the past for other incidents, including one in 2011 in which crews were ordered to stop work after clear-cutting trees from a former Christmas tree farm that he was in the process of purchasing near Sebastopol. That year, Hobbs also cleared redwood trees on a 10-acre site east of Guerneville without needed permits.
The Watertrough Road project has drawn scrutiny mainly because of its location adjacent to Apple Blossom and Orchard View schools. Parents are concerned that pesticide-laden dust from the work will drift onto school grounds.
Hobbs promised to install a fence between the properties to keep dust down, but it was not in place when work began last month. Work on the fence has begun, and it should be completed in a few weeks, Hobbs said.
"We are working closely with the school to do everything we can to ensure this project goes as smoothly as possible," Hobbs said. "Some people who oppose this, there's nothing that we can do to make them happy."
Two Sebastopol groups have emerged to oppose the vineyard, which will use Round-up and wet sulfur in planting.
Craig Litwin, a former city councilman and member of the Watertrough Children's Alliance, said the vineyard should be chemical-free and should include a 100-foot buffer around the schools.
"We need agriculture, but we also need healthy schools," he said. "My hope is that any agricultural project adjacent to a school be certified as organic."
Thomas Cooper, who founded the Apple Roots Group, said the project should be abandoned.
"This is the wrong place to have a vineyard, so close to a school," said Cooper, whose son attends nearby SunRidge School. "His permit should be revoked."