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Paul Hobbs wins in challenge from Watertrough Children's Alliance in Sebastopol

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Paul Hobbs wins in challenge from Watertrough Children's Alliance in Sebastopol

By Vesta Copestakes

Judge Gary Nadler’s ruling on April 29th leans on wording of the Sonoma County Vineyard Erosion and Soil Control Ordinance (VESCO) to dismiss Watertrough Children's Alliance (WCA) contention that Paul Hobbs vineyard conversion by Twin Hills School in Sebastopol was a violation of the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA).

The difference between the conversion of orchard to vineyard as a “discretionary” project under the environmental protection of CEQA (state law) versus a “ministerial” process under county laws (VESCO) became the defining terms that ruled the decision. The local law regarding soil erosion, water and air quality for agricultural operations is less stringent than state environmental law. If the lawsuit had been supported instead of dismissed, conversions of this nature could be required to meet more broad-reaching environmental review and protection. For many growers this would be too costly for them to farm the land.

What the WCA was hoping to accomplish is the protection of children attending school on the other side of the fence from the vineyard. Herbicides, pesticides and dust become airborne and the close proximity of children to these hazards stirred up concern among parents of children attending Twin Hills’ three schools on this campus.

When the original organic apple orchard was sold to Paul Hobbs there was hope that he would take advantage of the organic certification and plant a vineyard using organic methods. The first conflict came when apple trees were removed and soil disturbed just as rain came, causing erosion and run-off into the nearby creek. Paul Hobbs was fined for doing work before his permit was approved and the project continued once the permit was in place. 

Organized parents continued their struggle against Paul Hobbs vineyard practices by raising $30,000 to challenge Hobbs in court on what they saw as environmental abuses. Losing this case is a blow to the parents and a boon to Paul Hobbs and other farmers who feared it would establish a new precedent about oversight, environmental review and expense they currently don’t have to incur when establishing a new vineyard.

Paul Hobbs newly established vineyard next to Twin Hills School

As Sonoma County continues to replace food farms with vineyards, it’s possible that the WCA lawsuit will be the first of many designed to change laws that freely support the economy of agriculture without regard for environmental priorities. Many believe that we are capable of protecting our strong agriculture heritage in concert with protecting our environment into the future.

The nature of agriculture lends itself to safe environmental practices. Bio-hazards and catastrophes like the Dust Bowl years taught hard lessons on how to protect the earth on which we rely for our survival. Across the planet countries are establishing rules and laws to protect both the environment and people.

As Sonoma County gains a reputation for clean, quality products grown from our soil and processed with our water, our economy will depend upon higher standards for agricultural oversight. We’ll see where the county goes from here as each challenge becomes a lesson in progress WITH protection.