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Hall Coalition in the News
country in California enters season of discontent
(USA Today, 11/1/99)
residents and conservationists say too many forested hillsides
are being bulldozed for vineyards. Vintners say their opponents
are guilty of hypocrisy.
California-Sun-drenched valleys rippled with tidy rows of grape
vines, two-lane roads snaking through hills and quaint towns,
lazy weekend winery tours-that's what California wine country
looks like in travel brochures.
behind the country ambience, a messy battle is shaping up over
the future of America's most famous grape-growing region.
prices during a decade-long bloom in wine consumption have fueled
an unprecedented expansion of vineyards in Napa and Sonoma counties,
both producers of some of the world's finest wine.
binge has come at a cost. The character of these two rural counties
north of San Francisco is changing in ways that many people
abhor. Developers have been carving more vineyards out of wooded
hillsides and converting dairy farms and apple orchards to grapes
at a dizzying pace.
results have left conservationists and longtime residents aghast
at the new landscape: redwood and oak forest ripped out, wildlife
habitat lost, streams polluted, fish species threatened and
priceless views scarred.
movement is growing to rein in expansion. Last month, Sonoma
County approved strict rules to prevent soil erosion and stream
damage from new hillside vineyards. Napa County has had a similar
law since 1992, but it started only recently to enforce it aggressively.
environmentalists want the counties to pass laws giving government
the power to prohibit new vineyards, even on land already zoned
for agricultural uses that include grape growing. "People
know what a great place Sonoma County is, and they know vineyard
growth into the hillsides will change that," says David
Bannister, a member of the local Watershed Protection Alliance.
"The industry is generally viewed as a good thing, but
there can be too much of a good thing."
campaign here goes against the grain of efforts across the country
to preserve agriculture. Many laws protect farmland from encroaching
suburban sprawl and shield farmers from nuisance lawsuits. But
other than the outcry over giant hog-producing farms, there's
nothing else akin to the move in wine country to limit agriculture,
experts say. "I can't think of another type of agricultural
use that's a target like this," says J.B. Rhule, a Florida
State University law professor who has studied the legal issues
in farm-environment conflicts.
of vineyard expansion are vocal, but the amount of support here
is unclear. Growers resent deeply the idea of restricting new
vineyards and consider it hypocrisy and ingratitude. Besides
international prestige, the wine industry and the tourism it
creates account for more than half the regions' economy.
grape and wine industry made Sonoma County what it is,"
says Dom Paino, owner of Rancho Salina Vineyard. "Apples
didn't work, prunes went out, ranching went out. Now folks in
the Bay Area want to come up here, have a home in the hills
and keep everyone else out. Lock the gates."
counties would be on tricky legal ground legislating what can
be grown. The Supreme Court has upheld restrictions on agriculture
as long as farmers still can make a profit using the land for
something else. But growers here would argue that the thin,
rocky hillside soil is good for grapes and not much else.
is at stake so local counties are inviting litigation if they
unilaterally proceed," says Barton Thompson, an environmental
law professor at Stanford University.
a sense, wine country is suffering from its own prosperity-and
geography. Grape and wine prices have soared in the 1990s; the
average price of Sonoma merlot grapes, for instance, more than
double to $1,882 a ton by the 1998 harvest. Studies confirming
the health benefits of moderate wine drinking stoked demand,
while a strong economy and low interest rates fueled more vineyard
1990 through 1998, grape acreage rose 60% in Sonoma County to
53,000 acres. Napa had a more modest 14% increase to 36,000
acres. Virtually all the expansion in both counties was on forested
hillsides. The flatlands had been planted long ago. But in the
wine business, hillsides are a double-edged sword: They produce
the most flavorful grapes and the best wines; but they're harder
to farm, and the risk of erosion and watershed damage is greater.
a new industry wrinkle was hastening the outcry over vineyard
expansion-boutique wineries. Rich outsiders who covet wine-country
living were buying small spreads of 20 or 30 acres, planting
grapes next to their new mansions and settling in. Longtime
growers all have stories about the Hollywood entertainer or
the Silicon Valley multi-millionaire up the road, "lifestylers"
as they're derisively called.
of inexperienced newcomers putting in grapes on steep slopes
led to some well-publicized landslides and stream degradation.
And the "viewscapes," as they're called here, were
changing fast. A bare patch of cleared hillside amid the forest
isn't a pretty sight, and those were popping up all over.
intensity of it really caught people off-guard," says Brock
Dolman of the grass-roots Townhall Coalition, an opponent of
expansion. "Maybe your neighbor was a forest, and one day
the chain saws and bull-dozers rolled in, and they cut all the
trees and took out the stumps and graded the whole thing, contoured
off the mountain top. It's a scorched-earth operation."
Opatz, president of the Sonoma County Grape Growers Association,
says: "Some guy gets his view converted
I don't have
an answer that makes him happy, except next time maybe buy next
to a national forest."
cleared patches eventually become green with grape vines, but
the loss of woodland and wildlife habitat alarmed environmentalists.
Researches at the University of California at Berkeley estimate
that more than 1,600 acres of hardwood forest in Sonoma County
were cleared from 1989 to 1998 and probably several hundred
more since then.
the pressure, the county board of supervisors named a task force
on Oct. 12 that produced the hillside ordinance. It prohibits
vineyards within 50 feet of streams and requires engineering
plans to control erosion on the steepest slopes.
growers went along-controlling erosion is good business, and
they could live with the stream setbacks.
environmentalists want more controls on "industrial vineyards,"
their term for modern corporate operations that fence the land,
work it with heavy equipment, sterilize the soil, spray for
pests and deplete the groundwater.
wine is king, the vineyard people are used to a handshake and
a 'thank you' for being here instead of getting a critical eye
like timber or mining or fishing or any other industry,"
the look of vineyards is changing, growers say, because they're
being built for more mechanization, with recycled metal instead
of wood to stake the vines. Opatz defends the trend. "What's
more industrial, using recycled products or sawing down trees
and pressure-treating the wood?" he asks.
a little more than 5% of Sonoma County is vineyards, a point
that the grape growers says gets lost in all the rhetoric.
also say that the vast majority who take good care of the land
don't get enough credit.
far, there isn't much middle ground.
say the wine industry is being singled out when tougher land-use
rules should apply to everybody.
don't disagree, but they see vineyards as the priority: Right
now, nothing else is chewing up the forests.
of the vines
say that a lot of developers rushed to plant vineyards before
the county ordinance took effect. That expansion will slow down
when the wine boom inevitably goes bust, they say.
note that wine has been hot for 10 years, and they see no reason
for prices to fall anytime soon.
industry warns that if new vineyards are denied, housing sub-divisions
will go up instead.
label that a scare tactic; the county is capable of regulating
are skewing the economics and raising the stakes for everybody.
They farm as a hobby, not necessarily for profit, and they drive
up the price of the land.
when the rest of the wine industry is forced to pay up to $60,000
an acre, protecting that investment with a 10-foot fence to
keep wildlife from eating grapes seems reasonable, Opatz says.
happens next is unclear. In Napa County, several growers have
been prosecuted and fined this year for violating the erosion
ordinance, and a task force is studying whether to toughen it
further. Still, a Sierra Club lawsuit last month accused the
county of lax enforcement.
Sonoma County, the Townhall Coalition will look for candidates
next year to challenge supervisors who're up for re-election
and try to get an initiative on the ballot limiting vineyard
hard to know what the majority thinks," says supervisor
Paul Kelley, who opposes more restrictions. "There is a
growing anti-agriculture sentiment. It's anti-big business,
anti-corporate and anti-property rights.
going to hear more noise, but I don't know what is going to
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