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Un-oaked and dry: Justin Vineyards and Winery receives hard scrutiny after clear cutting trees 

At first sight, it could have been a rock quarry.

But the land that lay barren, its hillsides a lifeless chalky gray, was cleared to plant a vineyard. Before the dozers pushed acres of trees down and began building a massive 20-acre feet irrigation reservoir, the land was part open pasture, part hills covered in oaks, madrones, and manzanitas, all part of the dynamic ecosystem west of Paso Robles.

Now neighbors of the Willow Creek Road property are calling out Justin Vineyards and Winery—owned since 2010 by the multinational agricultural and water behemoth The Wonderful Company—and their holding company Estate Vineyards LLC.

The backlash began after photos of the site posted in early June went viral online. A week later SLO County issued a stop-work order, and the Upper Salinas-Las Tablas Resource Conservation District terminated an agreement that permitted the reservoir’s construction. County code enforcement is investigating the matter, and may refer it to the district attorney, said Code Enforcement Supervisor Art Trinidade.

Neighbors—including those who make some of Paso’s most well-known wines and usually keep harsh criticism to themselves—led the public response. Sommeliers have weighed in, restaurants are dropping Justin from their wine lists, and a boycott is brewing.

“It kind of shows you how far they crossed the line,” said Justin Smith, owner and winemaker at Saxum Vineyards.

Smith, who grew up on and runs a vineyard property just a mile south, said there’s long been an unwritten rule against major oak tree clearance. When that property came on the market, many overlooked it because the trees made it unviable to plant.

“No local, nobody around here in their right mind would think of buying and clearing that property,” Smith said.

But it happened, and now the community is asking if this was legal, and if so, why? Already, there’s an early push for an oak tree ordinance.

Currently, no policies explicitly ban tree removal in the county’s unincorporated areas. In most scenarios, however, projects that need a permit require environmental review, including measuring the impacts of tree removal, especially natives.

But county codes are often permissive toward agricultural operations, including exemptions from grading permit requirements if slopes are less than 30 percent grade. To build a reservoir for irrigation and frost protection, an alternative review program allows applicants to work with a resource conservation district (RCD), which helps minimize onsite impacts.

The county has now determined Justin violated both requirements, Trinidade said. Trees were removed from hillsides with more than 30 percent slope, and the agreement with the Upper Salinas-Las Tables RCD was violated because the company didn’t post the permit or notify the district when construction began, barring all required onsite monitoring.

There has been some question about whether the agencies should’ve caught the tree removal plans earlier—a planting plan indentified 240 plantable acres of vineyards over heavily wooded areas.

Eric Gobler, the project’s engineer, said “the county should not be too surprised” and had an opportunity to request more information for the entire project.

But Trinidade said the reservoir application made no mention about any other site preparation. He thinks the project’s contractors should have known better.

“We’re dealing with professional engineers, professional vineyard operators, and professional grading contractors, for Pete’s sake,” Trinidade said.

In an email to New Times, Mark Carmel, a The Wonderful Company spokesman, said the company will continue to work with the responsible agencies, even though the RCD terminated the permit for the reservoir.

“We believe we’ve been in full compliance with all regulations related to this project and are disappointed with this decision; however, we have developed a productive working relationship with the county and RCD and will continue to cooperate with them to address their concerns,” Carmel wrote.

But Devin Best, executive director of the Upper Salinas-Las Tables RCD, is skeptical.

“We try to work with the landowners to make sure that what they do fits with the spectrum of long-term sustainability and working with their neighbors,” Best said. “If that’s not something that fits within their mission, that’s not something that we can move forward working with them on.”

The impact to neighbors is at the epicenter of the fears and anger surrounding the project, especially over the groundwater supply, which consists of limited pockets and veins within the rocky subsurface.

“A lot of our wells are pretty meager, but they’re enough to sustain our farms,” Smith said. “We’ve all entered our little straws on top of it and we’re all sharing it equally, but then you have a greedy pig come along and slurp from the bottom of it, then we’re going to go dry.”

That’s a big worry for Neil Heaton, whose family has lived directly south of the site since the 1880s. The Heatons fully subsist on 20-acres of walnuts and 20-acres of grapes—all dry farmed. They watched as well drillers sank one of three new 700-foot deep wells right beside their property line, and worry about how the tree clearance will impact the watershed’s long-term health.

“It won’t take them long to push us to a place where we won’t have water to drink,” he said. “They don’t even know what this land looks like. They’re just looking at the spreadsheet. They just care about what makes money.” 

Contact Staff Writer Jono Kinkade at jkinkade@newtimesslo.com.

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

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