Paul Hobbs winery says it will pay $100,000 to Sonoma County in settlement

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Sebastopol winemaker Paul Hobbs will pay $100,000 to settle a civil lawsuit brought by Sonoma County prosecutors last year that alleged environmental and land-use violations in three vineyard conversion projects, his company said Friday.

Among other things, Hobbs was accused of causing soil erosion into a stream in a 2013 vineyard project off Watertrough Road and of bulldozing a Christmas tree farm off Vine Hill Road without a permit, starting in 2011.

Also, the lawsuit alleged land-use violations connected to a 2011 timber- clearing operation on a 10-acre ridgetop property off Pocket Canyon Road in Forestville.

The alleged breaches carried the potential for millions of dollars in penalties, but a settlement was reached recently after several weeks of negotiation, said Christopher O’Gorman, the winemaker’s spokesman.

It was signed Friday by Judge Nancy Shaffer, he said.

In addition to the fine, Hobbs agrees that all of his future vineyard development will comply with the law, O’Gorman said.

“We’re just happy to put it behind us,” O’Gorman said. “Now we can go on to farming and making great wine.”

A spokesman for the District Attorney’s Office could not be reached Friday.

Thomas Cooper, who opposed the Watertrough Road conversion because of its proximity to his son’s elementary school, said the settlement won’t fix environmental damage that already has been done. He said the fine is “just a cost of doing business” for Hobbs.

“It’s his business model,” Cooper said. “I don’t think $100,000 will be a deterrent whatsoever.”

The lawsuit resulted from a multi-year 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 west county land-clearing operations. Those actions included a logging project not included in the lawsuit, in which workers clear-cut a stand of redwoods from 8 acres along Gravenstein Highway near Sebastopol that Hobbs had just acquired at auction as part of a legal judgment.

The bulldozing of the one-time Christmas tree farm off Vine Hill Road near Graton happened without a permit and continued even after the District Attorney’s Office issued a stop-work order a week into the project, the lawsuit said.

Hobbs was under contract to buy the land at the time. It is now a productive vineyard.

West Sonoma County Supervisor Efren Carrillo previously 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.”

Carrillo did not return a call seeking comment Friday.

O’Gorman acknowledged the lapses Friday but said the potential for million-dollar penalties was overblown.

“There were some mistakes made at those properties,” O’Gorman said.

Before the settlement was reached, Hobbs last year took voluntary action at one of the properties, implementing costly environmental restoration projects and building a fence to stem concerns about dust, O’Gorman said. In 2013, Hobbs downsized a proposed vineyard, placing 117 acres of redwoods into an open space easement along with a $175,750 endowment to fund it, he said.

These actions were remarkable as the open space easement substantially devalued the land without any guarantee that grapes would ever be allowed to grow on the property, he said.

You can reach Staff Writer Paul Payne at 568-5312 or paul.payne@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @ppayne.

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