DA files environmental lawsuit against Sebastopol winery owner

The Sonoma County District Attorney's Office has filed a lawsuit against Sebastopol winery owner Paul Hobbs over a series of environmental and regulatory blunders. The suit seeks millions in civil penalties.|

A series of environmental and regulatory blunders that brought unfavorable attention to Sebastopol winery owner Paul Hobbs in recent years could cost the renowned winemaker millions of dollars in civil penalties if a pending lawsuit filed by the Sonoma County District Attorney’s Office prevails.

The District Attorney’s Environmental and Consumer Law Division lodged the civil complaint in May, saying Hobbs and his company “recklessly and carelessly” violated state and local land-use regulations in clearing trees and other vegetation from three prospective vineyard properties in west Sonoma County.

A spokeswoman for District Attorney Jill Ravitch said the aim of the May 28 suit is to safeguard the environment and protect the public interest by ensuring compliance with environmental rules governing vineyard development and other human interventions.

But attorneys for Hobbs said the case seeks “exorbitant and disproportionate civil penalties” in excess of $13 million, and does so improperly, suing on behalf of state agencies for which it has no authority to do so, according to court filings. Hobbs’ lawyers also said they intend to dispute the underlying facts as presented by the district attorney.

“This lawsuit,” Hobbs attorney John A. Holdredge said in an email, “serves no purpose other than to rehash years-old events and capture headlines - which is obvious from the inflammatory manner in which it was pled.”

But Sonoma County Agricultural Commissioner Tony Linegar said the suit reflects repeated instances in which Hobbs deviated from the wine industry’s general commitment to environmental stewardship and regulatory compliance.

“This is not how we farm in Sonoma County,” said Linegar, who slapped a stop-work order on Hobbs’ conversion of a 48-acre apple orchard on Watertrough Road near Sebastopol last year. “Growers came out and condemned this action because it’s not how we want to behave. We don’t want to be associated with people that treat the land like he did in this case.”

The legal suit resulted from a multiyear investigation launched amid one public relations test after another, as Hobbs, whose wines command up to $300 per bottle, sought to expand his grape production in Sonoma County.

During one six-month period in 2011, Hobbs endured a barrage of criticism related to three west county land-clearing operations, including a logging project not included in the lawsuit, in which he clear-cut a stand of redwoods from 8 acres along Gravenstein Highway near Sebastopol that he had just acquired at auction as part of a legal judgment.

The vineyard projects at issue in the legal suit include the controversial orchard conversion off Watertrough Road, where crews last year stripped a creek bank and adjacent riparian zone of bay laurel trees and blackberry bushes in violation of local vineyard planting rules, officials say.

The June 2013 work was done without proper erosion control, resulting in pollution of the stream with excavated soil and debris during rare summer rainfall, authorities said.

The suit also addresses the bulldozing of a one-time Christmas tree farm off Vine Hill Road near Graton without a permit beginning in October 2011, continuing even after the District Attorney’s Office issued a stop-work order a week into the work, the lawsuit says.

Hobbs was under contract to buy the land at the time. It is now a productive vineyard, wine company spokesman Christopher O’Gorman said.

The clear-cutting of hundreds of Christmas trees during rainy weather prompted public condemnation of Hobbs by west Sonoma County Supervisor Efren Carrillo, who expressed “shock and disbelief” in a local newspaper commentary.

Carrillo said Hobbs’ actions displayed “blatant disregard for Sonoma County, its resources, his fellow vintners, and community sentiment.”

The lawsuit contends that each day the tree-clearing work continued from Oct. 3, 2011, to April 27, 2012, constituted a separate violation of the county’s Vineyard and Orchard Erosion and Sediment Control Ordinance, or VESCO, as well California’s unfair competition laws. The suit says daily penalties of $2,500 should apply.

Also central to the case is a 2011 timber-clearing operation on a 10-acre ridgetop property off Pocket Canyon Road in Forestville that violated permit regulations, in part because a conservation easement required to offset the long-term loss of the timberland had not been recorded when workers started cutting down trees on May 10, 2011, the lawsuit says.

The easement was a condition of the tentative Timber Harvest Plan that Hobbs obtained from the state Department of Forestry and Fire Protection and was not recorded until Oct. 8, 2013 - 882 days after crews started felling trees.

Each day constituted grounds for a $10,000 penalty for violation of the California Forest Protection Act of 1973 and state Forest Practice Rules, the lawsuit states.

The logging also proceeded without a required erosion control plan, a problem finally corrected on Oct. 2, 2013, after 876 days in violation of state forestry rules, as well as unfair competition laws under the California Business and Professions Law, the lawsuit says.

In addition to daily civil penalties of $10,000 for each day state forest rules were violated, and $2,500 for each regulatory breach deemed a violation of unfair competition laws, the lawsuit seeks to impose daily penalties of $25,000 for at least two violations of state Fish and Game code in connection with alleged destruction of riparian habitat on Watertrough Road and disposal of excavated soil and waste where it could wash into an unnamed tributary of Atascadero Creek.

The suit says Hobbs also was prohibited by county ordinance and his county-?issued permit from interfering with any plant life within 25 feet of the top of the bank, and thus was in violation of county code as well as the unfair competition laws under the California Business and Professions code.

Linegar said the Watertrough project illustrated “a kind of a track history of these sorts of violations” that “does not fit in with the way we farm here.”

But O’Gorman, director of marketing communications for Hobbs’ company, said Hobbs was devoted to sustainable agricultural practices and had gone to great expense and effort to correct mistakes. He replanted native species on the Watertrough property, for instance. In providing a generous 117-acre conservation easement on Pocket Canyon Road, permanently protecting the acreage from development, Hobbs included a $175,750 endowment to cover the county open space district’s administration of the land.

Hobbs, who provides consulting services in far-flung locales, has been out of the country and was unavailable for comment, his spokesman said. But O’Gorman said large civil penalties sought in the lawsuit were really written “for the court of public opinion.”

“These wildly inflated claims are easy to file and almost impossible to prove in court,” O’Gorman said.

“We look forward to discussing all these issues, putting them in the proper context, with a judge who understands the circumstances,” he added.

Assistant District Attorney Christine Cook acknowledged the civil penalties “could be substantial,” but said they could vary significantly depending on the course of court proceedings and the judge’s discretion, if penalties are imposed at all.

Any penalties “are secondary to our ultimate goal, which is protection of the environment and seeking compliance,” Cook said. “That’s what we want out of this.”

You can reach Staff Writer Mary Callahan at 521-5249 or mary.callahan@pressdemocrat.com.

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