Judge dismisses legal challenge to Paul Hobbs vineyard project

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A judge has dismissed a challenge to Sonoma County’s approval of the controversial Paul Hobbs Winery vineyard project in Sebastopol, potentially ending a long-running legal dispute between the vintner known for his luxury wines and community activists who contend the 39-acre development poses serious environmental problems.

Sonoma County Superior Court Judge Gary Nadler on April 29 dismissed the claim by the Watertrough Children’s Alliance that the county erred in approving the vineyard conversion project.

The group argued that the county should have conducted a review under the stringent California Environmental Quality Act, given that schoolchildren could be exposed to pesticides from the new vineyard.

Instead, the county used its 15-year-old Vineyard Erosion and Soil Control Ordinance for its review.

The case hinged on the difference between two words. The alliance argued that the project was a “discretionary” conversion under CEQA, but Sonoma County and Hobbs argued that the decision to approve the vineyard project was more “ministerial” and should be exempt from state law.

Nadler agreed with Hobbs and the county, ruling that the county’s actions — including ordering reports, choosing a consultant, inspecting the work and ordering changes — did not demonstrate the permit approval was discretionary.

Hobbs spokesman Christopher O’Gorman said the ruling is significant beyond his winery. Had the case been allowed to proceed, he said, it could have opened the floodgate to lawsuits challenging vineyard expansions and conversions under CEQA in Sonoma County.

“The results of this suit could have been devastating both for farmers and the environment. Now we can continue to grow and thrive, responsibly,” O’Gorman said in a statement.

A press release from the winery said: “Hobbs is happy to return his full attention to farming and winemaking.”

Sonoma County Supervisor Efren Carrillo said on Monday that he had not been fully briefed on the ruling by legal counsel, but added that it appears it “leaves the door open for further interpretation” of VESCO.

Carrillo, who represents the west county area of the Hobbs vineyard property, said the Board of Supervisors will likely have further discussion to determine if there needs to be a retooling of the county ordinance as a result of the ruling.

The Watertrough Children’s Alliance and its lawyer did not respond to a request for comment.

Earlier this year, Hobbs paid $100,000 to settle a civil lawsuit brought by Sonoma County prosecutors alleging environmental and land-use violations as part of the vineyard project.

Prosecutors accused Hobbs of causing soil erosion into a stream in a 2013 vineyard project off Watertrough Road and the 2011 bulldozing of a Christmas tree farm off Vine Hill Road without a permit. They also alleged land-use violations connected to a 2011 timber-clearing operation on a 10-acre ridge-top property off Pocket Canyon Road in Forestville.

The violations carried the potential for millions of dollars in fines. Critics charged the settlement was a paltry sum and was “just a cost of doing business” for the winemaker, whose bottles go for as much as $300.

The vineyard expansion came at a cost for Hobbs, whether legal or public relations, including criticism from Carrillo.

In one notable incident, prosecutors said 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

Hobbs was under contract to buy the land at the time, which is now a functioning vineyard.

The winery argued that Hobbs did take voluntary action at one of his properties before the settlement with prosecutors. For example, he implemented restoration projects and built a fence to cut down on dust from the vineyard. In 2013, Hobbs downsized a proposed vineyard, placing 117 acres of redwoods into an open space easement along with a $175,750 endowment for its funding.

You can reach Staff Writer Bill Swindell at 521-5223 or bill.swindell@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @BillSwindell.

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