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SLO County to explore oak ordinance 

In a rare sign of unity among North County residents, agriculturalists, and the elected officials representing them, the San Luis Obispo County Board of Supervisors unanimously agreed to consider an ordinance that would restrict cutting and clearing of oaks or other native trees.

The push is in response to widespread outrage following the clear-cutting of several acres of oak woodlands on a property off Willow Creek Road west of Paso Robles. The property is registered to Estate Vineyards LLC, a holding company for Justin Vineyards and Winery’s properties in North County. Justin Vineyards was purchased by agricultural behemoth The Wonderful Company in 2010 and has since been rebranded and expanded.

Over the last few months, three new wells have been sunk, a water storage pond has been under construction, and thousands of trees were cleared in preparation to plant a new vineyard. At the beginning of June, aerial photographs of barren hillsides went viral online.

Reaction to those images prompted a stop-work order and an open investigation by county code enforcement, which believes there have been code violations.

The ordinance was pitched at the Board of Supervisors’ June 21 meeting, where two hours of public comment showed both passionate pleas and calm cases for the new policy.

Those on the forefront—most are wine grape growers, winemakers, or agriculturalists—said they want to make significant progress before it turns too political. They referenced an attempt to pass a similar ordinance 20 years ago, which failed after facing opposition from the agricultural community. At that time, agriculturalists said such restrictions weren’t necessary and may add complications to an industry that already honors an unwritten rule against clearing oaks.

Justin Smith, owner of Saxum Vineyards, which is just a mile south of the Justin Vineyards property, said that the unwritten rule has been broken, and it’s time for an ordinance.

“We were wrong … ,” Smith said. “We do need some laws to protect [the oaks]. One bad apple has spoiled the whole bunch.”

Neil Heaton, who lives directly south and down the watershed from the Justin Vineyards’ site, where his family has lived since the 1880s, is concerned that the new vineyard would negatively impact his domestic water supply and the small, dry-farmed walnut and vineyard operation that supports his family.

“We look to you for support on trying to stop the devastation that is currently happening behind us,” he said. “This destruction is unprecedented in our area.”

According to the planting plan provided to the county, Justin Vineyards identified 240 plantable acres—much of which requires tree removal—on the 375-acre property purchased there by the company.

Should the full vineyard be planted as planned, additional tree removal would be required. Holes dug for soil samples are visible in areas that are still wooded.

Local botanist John Chesnut estimated that 8,000 trees were cleared from the property, including 7,000 oaks from 52 acres and 1,000 trees like manzanita and madrone cleared from about 22 to 30 acres of oak brushland.

The supervisors will consider an ordinance at a July 15 special meeting. The board will also consider an ordinance regulating the construction of agricultural ponds, which have become an issue during the drought. 

-- Melody DeMeritt - former city council member, Morro Bay

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