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Sonoma County approves vineyard development rules sought by industry

A series of changes designed to streamline the rules surrounding vineyard planting in Sonoma County received unanimous approval Tuesday from the Board of Supervisors, which aligned with requests from the county’s wine industry and balked at wider protections sought by environmental advocates.

The revisions, described as minor by county officials, prompted little pushback on their own, and most county supervisors lauded the culmination of a couple of years of work to update the Vineyard Erosion and Sediment Control Ordinance, which dates to 2000.

“I think it’s really important to remember VESCO started because we were able to get (all parties) all at the same table to make sure we’re able to continue planting vineyards,” said Supervisor Shirlee Zane.

The changes include nixing a requirement for environmental studies of vineyard replanting on already farmed land; strengthened language around setbacks for protected streams and waterways; and the allowance of vineyard replanting within stream setbacks using modified planting procedures. The revisions also encompassed permit renewal timelines, extending grading permits to five years from three years.

Supervisors also directed staff to develop permit exemptions for replanting that uses the lighter-touch “pluck and plant” practices instead of the “deep ripping” that has long been used to prepare vineyard ground.

The changes came about through a series of meetings the past two years between grape growers, county agricultural staff, environmental leaders and Supervisors James Gore and Lynda Hopkins, who together represent the Russian River Valley, Dry Creek Valley, Westside Road and the Alexander Valley.

For Gore, a key element of vineyard governance is rewarding good land stewardship while going after those who harm the land.

“Don’t make it cost prohibitive and difficult to do what’s right,” Gore said.

Karissa Kruse, president of Sonoma County Winegrowers, welcomed the reforms.

“I want to thank you all for providing more certainty,” Kruse told supervisors.

The set of rules has been a source of friction between the county’s dominant industry and environmental interests since they were adopted in the wake of a major landslide in 1998 that caused Dry Creek to run red with sediment.

The board’s discussion and vote Tuesday featured less of that conflict, with most objections centered on recommendations not included in the update.

Environmental advocates sought stricter monitoring and enforcement, stronger protections for water resources and native trees and greater scrutiny for development on the county’s hillsides. Agriculture Commissioner Andrew Smith recommended against including such safeguards in the VESCO ordinance, which he said was designed to be more limited, and Gore and Hopkins have pledged to return to those issues next year.

Board Chair Susan Gorin was the lone supervisor to push back on the sidelined recommendations, saying she was a “self-professed tree hugger,” and she lamented a lack of action on a tree ordinance long sought by environmental groups to protect oak woodlands .

“I want to be ensured that we will have a tree ordinance,” Gorin said. “It’s on the work plan, but we never seem to get there.”

Gorin also clashed with Gore and Hopkins over her characterization of the proposed changes, which she insinuated were farther reaching but potentially left key environmental resources in jeopardy.

She asked county staff if they had confidence in their ability to fully safeguard the environment without the additions sought by advocates.

A frustrated Gore pushed back on that line of questioning and sought an explanation from county staff, who noted that any major changes that would weaken environmental protections would require a different legal process, including a lengthy review.

“I’m just not sure why you would throw a shadow of doubt on this,” Gore said to Gorin.

You can reach Staff Writer Tyler Silvy at 707-526-8667 or tyler.silvy@pressdemocrat.com.

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