Talking Points

Activists, grape growers wrangle over bid to force tougher state environmental standards on local vintners

By Stephanie Hiller

CALIFORNIA’S STRIDENT environmental laws are so complex they can glaze the eyes of even the most seasoned urban planner. But more than 100 people, many of them seniors, turned out Feb. 26 to attend a daylong workshop on the complexities of the California Environmental Quality Act, held in Sebastopol. In the wake of mounting opposition to vineyard expansion in the county, many who attended the workshop are pushing for county officials to adopt the tougher state standards to curtail grape growing and curb the loss of woodlands, depletion of well water, and degradation of waterways that sometimes accompany vineyard developments.

“CEQA is the primary handle that we have to protect the environment,” says Brenda Adelman, who earned her training in the trenches the hard way, in the long–and ultimately successful–battle to keep Santa Rosa wastewater out of the Russian River.

“To me it shows the extent of the siege Sonoma County is under right now,” says Ann Hancock of Sustainable Sonoma.

West county activist Ann Maurice is quite certain that most of the attendees were there because of the spread of “wall-to-wall grapes.”

“The biggest land-use problem we are facing is this controversial conversion of apple and dairy farms to grapes,” says Maurice, whose Ad Hoc Committee on Water was instrumental in staging the workshop in collaboration with the Planning and Conservation League, which has produced these workshops in 12 other locations throughout the state.

Maurice, who jokes that “CEQA is my middle name,” recently collected 1,000 signatures asking that vineyard applications be subject to CEQA, demonstrating strong public support for her position that agriculture’s impact on the environment must be subject to state law.

That is not the practice in Sonoma County. Concerns about the rapid spread of vineyards have been exacerbated recently by the supervisors’ approval of the final, diluted version of the much-anticipated hillside vineyard ordinance, whose more prosaic new title–the Erosion and Sedimentation Control Act–reflects its diminished ambitions.

THE SUPES specifically exempted that ordinance from the CEQA process. “It’s not subject to CEQA because it encourages people to prevent environmental damage by doing an erosion control plan,” explains Supervisor Mike Reilly, who represents the vineyard-heavy west county.

Says Maurice flatly, “That’s false. The ordinance says you can plant within 25 feet of the creek. I don’t think that protects the creek. It gives growers license to pollute the creek.

“Besides, the illegal delegation of authority to the consultant preparing the erosion control plan, removing government’s discretion [to review] that plan, is outrageous.”

The distinction between so-called ministerial and discretionary projects is fundamental to the CEQA process. When a permit is awarded in accordance with existing law or the General Plan, government’s action is ministerial–i.e., administrative–and not subject to public review.

But when the agency has the option to decide whether to approve a project, its power is discretionary; that’s when CEQA comes into play.

CEQA makes it easy for residents to object to a project on the basis of its observed impacts. “If you as a citizen have any evidence that there will be an impact on the environment, the developer will have to do an environmental impact report,” says environmental attorney William Yeates, and the burden of proof will be on the agency, not on the public.

EIRS ARE NOT required for a project that developers can show will not adversely impact the environment. In that case, a “negative declaration” is prepared, a relatively simple process. CEQA requires agencies to develop “thresholds of significance” against which the project’s impact may be measured. If there are impacts that can be readily minimized, then a “mitigated negative declaration” may suffice.

Most agencies are happy to get by with these simpler procedures. But if the EIR is required–and citizen input may force the issue–an intricate process begins that ultimately leads to public hearings.

Public pressure may determine how effective–and how complex–the process will be. And the public has been known to become quite adversarial on these issues, bringing all its preferences to bear on stopping the project.

Once a decision is reached, the public has only 30 days to object, and lawsuits against the project are extremely hard to win, says Yeates.

“The biggest problem with CEQA is the expense of taking suit,” says Rick Coates of Forests Unlimited, who has challenged many timber harvest plans, the timber industry’s functional equivalents of EIRs.

Costs of preparation are paid by the applicant. But the applicant’s perspective was given little attention in the workshop. Says Nick Frey, executive director of the Sonoma County Grapegrowers’ Association, “If there is any public challenge, then the cost to do an EIR can be high. Small farmers will not likely want to endure the hassle.”

John Pina, director of vineyard operations for Stone Street, one of the companies owned by Jess Jackson of Kendall-Jackson, comments, “Speaking for growers, they don’t want anything to do with the process. Why would you if you never had to in the past?”

Isn’t it useful to protect the natural resources in the region? “What bothers me more than anything else,” he says, “is that there’s no single segment of the business economy that does a better job of managing the resource.”

The concerns of local residents about pesticide use by the grape-growing industry are uninformed, he believes, and as for water, well, “I guess if there’s water in the ground it belongs to everybody. Just because your well was there first doesn’t mean the water is yours.”

GROWERS’ opposition to being subjected to CEQA is surely what is driving state Assemblyman Don Peratta’s new bill to exempt vineyards from CEQA.

Frey believes that CEQA “would drive the small grower out of the business. They may not have the money and they likely would prefer to sell their land than deal with CEQA. That will drive the business to large vineyard organizations that have a staff to handle CEQA–or to non-ag uses.”

If so, the end result would be sour grapes on both sides of the fence.

It’s the big growers like Kendall Jackson that locals really want regulated, activists say.

Keith Abeles, a farmer and member of the Community Alliance with Family Farmers, says, “Most growers have 25 acres or less. They’re not laughing their way to the bank.”

Savvy neighbors say that the best way to avoid an EIR is to do the right thing in the first place. But until agreement is reached about what best practices are required, discussions become arguments, with angry feelings felt all around the table.

During the coming weeks, CAFF is holding a series of facilitated discussions to “get the people who are criticizing each other to talk more to each other.” Call 823-6788 for the schedule.

From the March 23-29, 2000, 1999 issue of the Sonoma County Independent.

© Metro Publishing Inc.

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