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Group of Mendocino County farmers opposes MendoVito ‘village’ project

When a group of self-?described “social entrepreneurs” late last year launched a campaign to raise money and support for a self-contained, green-minded city of 10,000 residents on vineyard property in a Mendocino County valley several miles east of Hopland, local ranchers stayed mostly mum on the lofty proposal.

Not anymore. Some of the county’s most established farmers have now launched an offensive against the so-called MendoVito project, claiming that its planned displacement of 423 acres of farmland would set off an irreversible urban development in a rural area of mostly vineyards and orchards.

“What we’re opposed to is it’s going into the heart of agricultural land,” said Bill Pauli, a fifth-generation Mendocino County rancher who farms over 1,000 acres of grapes and about 100 acres of pears in the Potter and Ukiah valleys.

He’s among more than 45 farmers who have signed a letter to the county opposing the project.

The letter calls MendoVito “unrealistic” and “Utopian” while saying it would pose a significant threat for farmland conversion, including a potential domino effect on other agricultural parcels in the McDowell Valley and beyond.

The proposed project would take a big bite out of Mendocino County’s limited irrigated farmland, estimated at 25,000 acres, according to UC Extension viticulture adviser Glenn McGourty.

“We have strong objections to this concept and consider that the McDowell Valley is not the proper place for such a massive construction and development undertaking,” states the letter of opposition, penned by Wendel Nicolaus, owner of Middleridge Vineyards in Hopland.

Other signatures on the letter include those of John, Joe, Dan and Patti Fetzer, of the prominent Mendocino County winemaking family, vintner Len Brutacao and Tim Thornhill of Parducci Wine Cellars and Mendocino Wine Co.

Billy Crawford, who until several years ago owned McDowell Vineyards - including the acreage envisioned for the project - also is against the development, which he said would forever alter land that has been in grape production for more than 100 years.

“It would be a shame,” he said.

The land is not for sale, but the current owners, Jake and Scot Bilbro of Marietta Cellars in Geyserville, have said they would consider selling if the community demonstrates that is what it wants.

The people who launched the project - many of them from New Zealand - plan to take their project to county voters, bypassing the need to get the property rezoned by county officials, a potentially difficult feat.

The proponents, who also include a core group of local people calling themselves “friends of MendoVito,” say the land’s conversion would not be detrimental to farming because they contend that it doesn’t generate food.

“I don’t consider wine grapes food,” said Elizabeth Archer, a local resident who said she joined the group of supporters after attending a meeting on the project. In contrast, food crops would be grown in the new town, which would become the county’s second largest population hub after Ukiah.

Archer also took aim at the project’s newly emergent opponents, saying she doesn’t consider the grape growers farmers.

“I wouldn’t classify them as farmers. Most of them are vineyard owners. I think a lot of the people who signed that letter are of the comfortable class. It behooves them to maintain the status quo,” Archer said.

She said many area farmers who do grow food support the project. The soils of McDowell Valley may not be nurturing corn or carrots, but that could change in the future if the land isn’t covered under a town, said Pauli, the grape and pear grower.

“You can grow anything you want on this land,” he said.

The opponents said they decided to speak up despite having doubts about the project’s viability because they don’t want to leave farmland preservation to chance.

The project proposed by Claude Lewenz, a resident of New Zealand and author of “How to Build a Village Town,” would be comprised of 10 to 20 connected villages combined to create a town that is almost entirely self-reliant. Residents would grow food and collect rainwater in rooftop greenhouses and would walk to work at businesses within their community. It would have its own libraries, museums, theaters, taverns, sports arenas, water and sewer facilities, classrooms and an industrial park.

Supporters expect to present their proposal to voters sometime in 2016. But they first need to get at least 2,000 potential residents signed on, line up commitments from employers, create a “specific plan” and raise about $72 million, said Andrew Blake, one of the project’s “stewards.”

Nothing like MendoVito has ever been built anywhere before and many doubt the prospects in Mendocino County.

It’s “a glorious fairytale,” critic and Hopland resident Susan Poor wrote in a letter to the editor of a local newspaper.

Lewenz, in a phone interview from New Zealand, said the naysayers are wrong. All of the concepts are tried and proven previously, he said, just not in a single project.

“Why would I want to engage in fairytales?” he said.

You can reach Staff Writer?Glenda Anderson at 462-6473?or glenda.anderson@?pressdemocrat.com.

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