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Hall Coalition in the News
Wrath of Grapes
By Sara Peyton
(Sonoma County Independent, 10/28/99)
county residents are seeing red over rampant vineyard expansion
BE FOOLED by the relative calm of downtown Occidental, a row
of family-style Italian restaurants, gift shops, and hideaway
inns: this is ground zero in what is shaping up to become one
of the biggest political battles in Sonoma County history. Through
the glass window of hair stylist Debra Anderson's Lookinglass
Salon you can see downtown Occidental's new environmental center,
at the heart of an escalating uproar over the sprawl of new
grapevines snaking along the dry flaxen hillsides of west county.
newly staked vines are a new gold rush that's changing the face
of the region's historic ranching communities. Seeing vintage
oaks cut and removed as land with heritage views is graded and
planted in grapes--with little discussion about the county's
future--has folks demanding to know the environmental consequences
of turning water into wine.
and political activist Lynn Hamilton are at the core of a growing
organization, the newly formed Town Hall Coalition, which is
working to protect watersheds forests and natural habitats.
The local grassroots group supports sustainable agriculture
and a mix of crops.
behind the desk at her shop, Anderson says, "I do a significant
amount of the hair around here and I hear what's getting said."
summer, while Anderson trimmed and styled, clients mostly complained
about vineyard development near their homes. Some told her about
wells drying up and about bulldozers nudging piles of dirt near
environmentally fragile streams.
were strings of these occurrences. I knew we had to do something,"
she says. In her mid-'40s, president of Occidental's Chamber
of Commerce, and the mother of four, Anderson joined about a
dozen west county residents who organized the recent series
of packed Occidental town meetings to voice concerns about the
wasn't surprised when some 450 to 500 folks--including nurses,
biologists, writers, musicians, in surance representatives,
artists, plumbers, developers, consultants, contractors, environmentalists,
organic farmers, real estate agents, and grape growers--crammed
the tiny town's Community Center in early September. "I
have a good grasp about what goes on here and how to motivate
the town," Anderson says.
isn't about 'us against the grape growers,' " she adds,
waving a manicured hand at the environmental center at the entrance
to her shop. "It's about learning how to be a good neighbors."
Sonoma County has established itself in the lucrative premium-grape
THIS WARM and sunny October afternoon, Lynn Hamilton and her
husband, Don Frank, are busy setting up the new environmental
center, now freshly equipped with a phone and fax machine. Hamilton,
a former mayor of Sebastopol, settled in Occidental last year
and became a driving force behind the movement to stop the vineyard
conversions. Before that, she spent several years in South America
working for Ashoka, the Washington, D.C.-based non-profit that
promotes social change by funding creative people who have come
up with new ways to help the poor and improve social systems
in their countries.
for Ashoka and meeting social entrepreneurs from around the
world has helped me be more effective," says Hamilton,
51. "The purpose of the Town Hall Coalition is to effect
social change. We're giving people information so they can come
up with new proposals, write a letter, testify at a hearing,
or reach out to a neighbor. This is not a protest movement--it's
a social change movement.
reason why I left South America was that the deforestation and
erosion there were escalating and I couldn't see a way it could
be stopped. I wanted to come home and prevent the conversion
of forests to agricultural land here," she says
the Napa-based Phelps Vinyard preparing a golden Freestone hillside
for grapes and hearing about widespread forest conversions--including
a plan to clear-cut 4,000 acres of coastal land for the largest
vineyard conversion of all--got Hamilton thinking. In late August,
she and her husband celebrated their recent marriage with a
party at their home. In lieu of gifts, they asked for donations
to start a fund to protect watersheds and forests in Sonoma
County. The money raised (about $1,500) helped underwrite the
cost of the first town hall meeting.
the sizable turnout was a surprise. "I had no idea what
was going to happen," she says. "After the meeting,
we were overwhelmed by phone calls and e-mails. We've had calls
from Sonoma, Healdsburg, Napa, San Francisco, Santa Barbara,
and across the country.
knew then that we were on to something and that there's a lot
of support to protect the environment from slash-and-burn agriculture,"
says Hamilton. Indeed, environmental groups in vineyard-laden
Healdsburg and Sonoma have invited the Town Hall Coalition to
hold town meetings in their communities, and plans are under
way to hit the road early next year.
our meetings, we have an opportunity to build informal relationships
and to network," says Hamilton. "It's exciting to
hook up with people throughout the county and reach out to a
GRAPE grower who is listening is Mel Sanchietti. On the day
following my visit to the environmental center, he's on the
doorstep of my Occidental home for some straight talk about
vineyards. It's harvest time and Sanchietti is busy, but he's
also anxious to talk about what farming life is really like.
was pleasantly surprised that Lynn Hamilton and I think alike
about a lot of things. We share a love of the county and we
both want to preserve our community," says Sanchietti,
vice president in charge of vineyards for Korbel Champagne Cellars
in Guerneville. He owns a newly planted 65-acre vineyard surrounding
his home. He attended both recent Town Hall Coalition meetings,
talked about his work at the second forum, and plans to participate
in future Town Hall meetings.
third-generation farmer, Sanchietti played football for Sebastopol's
Analy High School. His family has farmed in the county since
1919. Today, Sanchietti, his wife, and 15-year-old son live
in his grandparents' old homestead. "We've farmed everything
from prunes to apples to grapes," he tells me as we walk
around my yard. "That's sustainable agriculture.
do wonder how non-professionals putting in these small vineyards
are going to take care of their crop legally and make a profit,"
he muses, naming some agricultural regulations, including a
requirement that growers keep detailed records of pesticide
usage, legal labor hired, and grading permits obtained.
too many years ago, Sanchietti disliked discussing farming with
people whose views about agriculture and farming practices differed
from his own. But now that he's 50 and a grandfather, he finds
he's more willing to listen to others even if he doesn't agree
with them. Since the town hall meetings, Sanchietti is spending
more time talking to the neighbors. And he's pondering new ways
to reach out to those who live near his vineyard and Korbel's
winery. He's thinking about distributing a calendar detailing
those dates when spraying and other work occur at the vineyards.
"I was afraid of doing something like this before,"
says he supports the new county hillside vineyard ordinance,
describing it as a "good beginning." The first-of-its-kind
ordinance, which takes effect Dec. 2, was crafted amid a storm
of controversy after negotiations between environmentalists
and growers. Designed to reduce the environmental degradation
of streams, the ordinance bars new vineyards on hillsides steeper
than 50 percent, and requires growers to pay fees, submit erosion
control plans for plantings on allowable slopes, and have 50-foot
setbacks from streams and other riparian areas.
thinks an additional groundwater ordinance--an idea promoted
by the Town Hall Coalition and now being researched on the county
level at the urging of 5th District Supervisor Mike Reilly--may
be a good idea.
Sanchietti doesn't approve of logging redwoods to plant grapes.
He says Korbel owns about 1,500 acres in Sonoma County, with
hundreds of forested acres it could develop for vineyards but
won't. "We keep our redwoods," he says.
notes that the famous champagne makers also own a large organic
vineyard in Kenwood and use environmentally friendly integrated-pest
wants to coexist amicably with the neighbors of his family vineyard
and the vineyards he manages for Korbel. But he hopes longtime
farmers will get credit from environmentalists and open-space
advocates for preserving agricultural lands and preventing housing
of us work hard at being real farmers," he concludes.
THAT EVENING, the historic Union Hotel in downtown Occidental
is jammed with Town Hall Coalition members, community folks,
and environmentalists of all stripes, including some decked
out in their rainbow-colored best. It's the annual dinner and
fundraiser for the Western Sonoma County Rural Alliance.
a lot of talk and wine sipping.
little evidence of the recent sniping among some who fear more
regulations of county agriculture will open the door to housing
development and those who say that without additional regulations
corporate vineyards will blanket the landscape with industrial
up on a chair to speak to the crowd is Dave Hensen, the director
of the Occidental Arts and Ecology Center and a Town Hall Coalition
organizer. "This is the moment of ripeness," he says,
calling for enhancements of the wildlife habitat and the elimination
of pesticides. "There's an agrarian revolt happening around
the planet. We need more town hall meetings, and we need to
take them on the road. What we organize here can be a model
for the planet."
later tells me, "It's my intention to talk to as many farmers
as possible. We're not anti-farm. We're trying to help the family
farm prosper. I've seen how macro-economics can make and break
whole communities. Where I think we can find common ground is
with the people who love this community and love these hills
even if we don't always agree on farming practices."
those at the dinner is county Supervisor Mike Reilly. "I
haven't seen this many people involved in an issue since the
issues around the Santa Rosa sewage spill into the Russian River
in the '80s," Reilly says. All the new people involved
with the Town Hall Coalition that are showing up at supervisors'
meetings and writing letters are having an effect on county
decisions, he adds.
coalition came together quickly, but once someone called a meeting
on the issue it struck a chord with a great many. People are
seeing the character of their land around them change, and they're
upset about it for a variety of reasons," says Reilly about
the increase of highly visible new vineyards sprouting in the
he warns, "there are a lot of different issues and there's
a tendency to roll them up into a ball and deal with them all
at once. When you're talking about issues like groundwater depletion
in water-scarce areas, the whole pesticide issue, cutting redwood
trees down to plant vineyards--each one of these issues has
its own levels of jurisdiction within the government, and they're
probably going to have be dealt with each in its own right over
question is whether the Town Hall Coalition will have the energy
to sustain that kind of an effort."
that developing and enacting new county ordinances and regulations
takes months and sometimes years, Reilly hopes that "vineyard
folks and Town Hall folks find a way to engage in a dialogue
on some of these issues so we can get a better sense of what
solutions are possible."
is firmly against clearing redwoods to plant grapes. He points
to a recent study by the University of California identifying
some 150,000 acres locally suitable to conversion to grapes,
nearly triple the acreage dedicated to grapes today. "The
key to the study was to identify redwood and timber woodland
areas that are at risk of being converted to vineyards and also
to identify to the Open Space District the areas that are most
threat-ened," says Reilly.
evening public workshop about the report will be held Nov. 2
at the county Board of Supervisors chambers.
NOW, Town Hall Coalition organizers are optimistic that they
can prevent Sonoma County from becoming a banana republic to
the grape industry--or a "grape republic," as some
quip. On their agenda is the development of "Fight-Back"
community organizing kits to help property owners deal with
timber-conversion plans and new vineyards. They're looking to
strengthen the new hillside ordinance, researching groundwater
regulations and buffer zones in other areas, learning about
the impact of pesticide use and fencing on wildlife habitat;
and they have plans to interview political candidates throughout
the county about these issues. They're also creating lists of
wineries and vineyards that rely on organic and biodynamic methods
and are recommending such environmentally friendly grape growers
to their friends, co-workers, and alumnae associations.
on all of these projects are some 200 people assigned to various
citizen-action committees--forestry, labor, law, media, outreach,
politics, toxics, air quality, water, and winery safety.
involved include people like local resident Jim Hendrikson--who
joined the water committee--who say they're in for the long
haul. You might say Hendrikson knows a lot about huge undertaking--she
was the music editor for the blockbuster movie Titanic. "I
was surprised by the first town hall meeting," he says.
"I had expected chest thumping, angry venting, and a lot
of bemoaning. But there was a lot less of that than I expected.
was gratified that we hit the ground running, got organized,
and started addressing our concerns at supervisors' meetings."
immediate concerns are over a small six- to seven-acre vineyard
about to be planted across the street from his home. "I'm
getting my well tested tomorrow to have a point of demarcation
before the vineyard goes in. We're also going to put some plantings
on our side of the road to shield us from spraying, noise, and
dust," says Hendrikson, who moved to Occidental in 1995.
surprised by how much has changed in four years," he says
about the new rows of vines in his ridgetop neighborhood. But
we need to work with the local growers, understand their problems,
and work toward responsible methods of farming. We don't want
to alienate the people who have spent a lifetime here. Fighting
the big corporations is job enough," says Hendrikson.
probably an end to this somewhere. There's only so much wine
you can drink."
The Sonoma County Board of Supervisors will hold a policy workshop
on Tuesday, Nov. 2, at 6:30 p.m., to hear the presentation of
a new study by the University of California on the implications
for public policy and environmental impact of continued vineyard
expansion. The next Town Hall Coalition meeting is scheduled
for Dec. 7, at 7:30 p.m., at the Occidental Community Center,
corner of Bohemian Highway and Graton Road. Call 874-9110 for
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