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The Sonoma County Board of Supervisors on Tuesday unanimously approved an emergency halt to new vineyards and orchards on forested slopes and hilltops.

The four-month freeze was prompted by a wave of new vineyard projects and a need to update 12-year-old farming regulations that don't deal with tree removal, officials said.

County Agricultural Commissioner Tony Linegar called that loophole a "deficiency" in the current rules.

"We've seen proposals that would remove a significant number of trees on steep slopes. I don't think it takes a rocket scientist to know that that is going to affect erosion," said Linegar, who assumed his post last month.

Grape growers and agriculture leaders provided guarded support for the move, with some saying they recognized the need to revise rules implemented in 2000. Those regulations allow development of hillside vineyards on slopes up to 50 percent, but contain no restrictions on tree removal.

"We understand that even the best rules over time need adjustment," said John Holdredge, board president of the Russian River Valley Winegrowers.

Still, many wine industry representatives voiced concern over the possibility of tighter regulations, saying they could impact the local economy and be a blow to smaller vineyard operations.

"I ask the process to be cognizant of that specific issue," said Pete Opatz, vice president of Napa-based Silverado Premium Properties, which manages more than 5,000 acres of grapes in the region and vineyards on the Central Coast.

Environmentalists and others who have questioned the reach of vineyards into previously untilled country welcomed the move.

"I've watched the cumulative impact of ridgelines that are stripped of trees and (replaced) by vineyards," said Bonnie Berkeley, who lives above Dry Creek Valley.

"This is the perfect time to pause and assess the (effect on) forested ridgetops and slopes."

Tuesday's decision, before a packed audience, sets up what is likely to be the continuation of a decades-long debate over the proper reach of the region's world-famous vineyards and how they are regulated.

The results could have far-reaching implications.

Two Annapolis-area proposals call for the conversion of over 1,900 acres of forest into land for wine grapes.

County officials have suggested those two projects — the 146-acre Artesa Vineyard proposal and the 1,769-acre Preservation Ranch project — would be subject to any updated regulations, as well as existing state and county rules governing timber-to-vineyard conversions.

In the short-term, the moratorium would affect seven pending vineyard projects covering 341 acres in western and northern Sonoma County. Artesa's proposal, which is further along than Preservation Ranch, is the largest in the affected group.

Others include the 122-acre project put forward on Skaggs Springs Road by Healdsburg vinters Ken and Diane Wilson of Wilson Winery.

Ken Wilson, contacted Monday by phone, said he was undecided on his stance on the moratorium. He said his property was mostly open land, with groves of oaks and madrones that would require removal.

"There's issues on both sides," Wilson said, adding "slopes have to be looked at carefully."

Also on the the list of pending projects is the 10.7-acre Pocket Canyon vineyard proposed by vintner Paul Hobbs.

Last year, Hobbs was is the news in connection with tree clearing trees on a trio of properties to make way for grapes. The work was permitted in two cases. In the third, the clearing of the Pocket Canyon property, Hobbs did not have the proper permits, a mistake he has acknowledged.

County officials have insisted Hobbs' actions did not prompt the moratorium and that they were looking instead at the overall number of new projects, especially the larger proposals and some not yet in the application line.

Hobbs, for his part, says he favors some tighter regulations.

"Hopefully it doesn't put an end to small hillside vineyards because that would be a shame," he said.

"But massive industrial plantings, those days should be over."

In 2000, the board implemented what was known as the Vineyard Erosion and Sediment Control Ordinance, or VESCO. The rules were touted as a hard-won consensus on vineyard development, but the omission of tree removal from the rules immediately led some environmental advocates to question their strength. At least one grape grower at the time said the ordinance amounted to a "shellacking" for the environmental community.

OnTuesday, several board members agreed it was time to update the rules.

<NO1><NO>Supervisors Mike McGuire, Shirlee Zane and Valerie Brown voiced the strongest support for the moratorium, which would extend through May.

"I do think it is time for a temporary time out," McGuire said. He cited what he said was a push by vineyards into unfarmed woodlands.

"The reason (for the update) is the landscape has changed," he said.

Zane echoed his comments. "Bad projects give a good industry a black eye," she said.

Supervisors David Rabbitt and Efren Carrillo voiced more concern over the pause, with Rabbitt questioning the urgency behind the move.

"You don't want to change rules midstream," he said. "It think we could have dealt with this on an ongoing basis."

Carrillo opposed a suggestion by McGuire to set up a group of growers and environmental representatives to provide input on the rule update. He said he wanted the update to be driven by "science not politics" and that he preferred the agricultural commissioner have flexibility to choose how public comment is gathered.

Linegar told supervisors he planned to hold a series of meetings to solicit public feedback.

The proposed regulations are due back to the board April 24.

Regardless of the moratorium, county rules prevent much grading and vineyard development work in the wet season. Environmental leaders, citing those limits and what they said was a need for more in-depth study, called for a longer moratorium and broader public process.

Supervisors resisted those calls, signaling they would not support any longer freeze on vineyard applications.

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