With complaints rising in Sonoma County regarding the expansion of vineyards, county officials have adopted regulations for grape planting. However, at least some environmentalists and homeowners believe the restrictions are inadequate, and the protests show no sign of abating.
Within the last year or so, the amount of Sonoma County property planted as vineyards has surpassed the acreage in the county's nine incorporated cities. Environmentalists and homeowners complain that these new vineyards erode topsoil, deplete groundwater supplies, contaminate the environment with pesticides and ruin wildlife habitat. Grape growers say these concerns are exaggerated and contend that there is no reason to worry about what some have termed "runaway vineyard development."
The Sonoma County Board of Supervisors responded to the controversy by approving an ordinance, scheduled to take effect this year, that prohibits vineyard planting on slopes of at least 50%, calls for erosion control measures on slopes of at least 15% and mandates a 50-foot setback from riparian corridors.
The new rules have made grape growers happier than environmentalists, and a study by the University of California Cooperative Extension in Hopland demonstrated why.
"A very, very small amount of previously developed vineyards and lands most suitable for future planting would fall under this ordinance," said Adina Merenlender, a UC Cooperative Extension specialist. "The bottom line is that farmers did a very good job of protecting themselves."
The Board of Supervisors makes no apologies for supporting growers. Although the wine industry employs only about 8,900 people countywide, or about 4% of the work force, wine has become the county's signature. Even Supervisor Mike Reilly, the supervisor most sympathetic to environmental causes, was quoted in the Santa Rosa Press Democrat as saying, "Ag in whatever form is vastly preferable to subdivision development."
Fifteen years ago, subdivisions were the big worry in Sonoma County, where the traditional apple, prune and dairy industries were declining. However, grape growing was taking off. From 1985 to 1999, the amount of land planted with vineyards increased from about 30,000 acres to 52,000 acres. This growth occurred because of higher sales of more expensive wines (Sonoma County grapes are used for premium varietals) and because the neighboring Napa Valley has almost no land remaining for additional vineyards.
Most new Sonoma County vineyards replaced other agricultural uses, namely orchards and pasture. However, vineyards have supplanted about 2,000 acres of dense oak woodland since 1990, according to Merenlender. This is worrisome because planting even small vineyards in an area that supported oaks is fragmenting habitat and forcing species to survive in smaller areas, she said.
A four-month-old, Occidental-based group called Town Hall Coalition is leading the vineyard opposition. The organization attracted crowds of at least 200 people to each of three forums it has conducted.
"This summer, everything changed," said Lynn Hamilton, a Town Hall Coalition leader and former Sebastapol city councilwoman. Vineyards had been seen as valuable assets, she said, but homeowners and real estate agents have begun complaining about wells running dry, pesticide spraying, and the loss of a diverse ecosystem.
"You just can't believe the panic in all of these little communities after we nurtured this (agriculture) for so many years," Hamilton said. "This is Gallo, this is Kendall-Jackson. This is corporate, industrial vineyards. … It's slash and burn agriculture."
Town Hall Coalition calls for regulating groundwater, preventing new vineyards on slopes of greater than 30%, limiting lot coverage to 75%, mandating erosion control systems that can handle 100-year storms, building wildlife corridors and animal-friendly fences, and implementing stronger state pesticide regulation.
Grape growers say opponents paint an unfair picture and Town Hall Coalition proposals are unnecessary. Only 5% of Sonoma County is planted in grapes, and 80% of vineyards are smaller than 100 acres apiece, according to Nick Frey, executive director of the Sonoma County Grape Growers Association. Also, grapes require less water than apples, vegetable crops or houses. Growers also argue that the pesticide threat is overstated and assert that 75% of pesticides used are sulfur, which can be applied even to certified organic produce. State inspectors have found no instances of groundwater contamination linked to legal pesticide use in the last 10 years, growers say.
Still, grape growers must contend with negative perceptions in Sonoma County and elsewhere for the first time. A recent poll of 700 Sonoma County voters by Richard Herzog Consulting of Bodega Bay found the industry enjoys a very strong reputation. Still, about half of respondents supported new regulation of vineyard expansion.
The public has rallied for a variety of reasons. Kendall-Jackson's cutting of 800 oak trees when the Santa Rosa company converted a 1,400-acre cattle ranch to a vineyard in Santa Barbara County two years ago created a storm of protest. The Kendall-Jackson activity led to a county initiative — which voters defeated in 1998 — that would have required a permit to cut an oak tree. At about the same time, Gallo began clearing forested hillsides in Sonoma County's Russian River Valley, stirring public discontent.
Last year, some San Luis Obispo County environmentalists and ranchers made strange bedfellows in calling for a halt to the conversion of ranches to vineyards. The county does not regulate vineyard planting. Instead, the construction of large wineries on agricultural land is the bigger issue, said Mark Hutchinson, environmental specialist at the San Luis Obispo County Planning Department. Since 1996, the county has approved 34 new wineries and nine expansions, ranging from farmhouse conversions to a 700,000-square-foot facility.
The industry is under a microscope now, more so in Sonoma County than anywhere, conceded Barry Bedwell, president of the Fresno-based Allied Grape Growers.
"The wine-grape industry is aware and is attempting to be sensitive to these issues that are being raised," Bedwell said. Grape growers need to bridge the gap with environmentalists and the "urban sector," he said.
Sonoma and Napa counties are farthest along in regulating vineyard activity, although Santa Barbara County now uses a grading ordinance to regulate some planting. Still, the rules are limited. Any efforts to regulate the industry are a concern, Bedwell said.
Whether grape growing will continue to expand in Sonoma County is debatable. California has about 507,000 acres of vineyards, nearly one-quarter of which were planted during the last five years, Bedwell reported.
Growers suggest much of the Sonoma County land best-suited for vineyards has already been planted. Using a geographic information system, the UC extension determined that about 158,000 additional acres are at least somewhat suitable for new vineyards. However, UC's Merenlender said some of that acreage is marginal land where planting is unlikely, and she emphasized the figure is not a prediction.
Lynn Hamilton, Town Hall Coalition, (707) 874-9110.
Barry Bedwell, Allied Grape Growers, (559) 276-7021
Adina Merenlender, UC Cooperative Extension, (707) 744-1270.
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