PASO ROBLES — "JustNo" stickers were worn on the chests of about 200 outraged locals at Templeton's Nature's Touch community meeting Monday, June 13. The forum addressed Estate Vineyards LLC, representing Justin Vineyards and Winery, which clear cut hundreds of oak trees on its reservoir project site, located at 1380 Willow Creek Rd. in Paso Robles. The location has been reported as 750 Sleepy Farm Rd., but this is really an easement access road, not the address filed in the project agreement.
San Luis Obispo County Code Enforcement staff halted the project, officially owned by the Wonderful Company, June 9 upon discovery of a grading violation.
Issues with the project discussed at the forum included; oak tree protection, water impact, and the agricultural grading violation, all addressed by Art Trinidad, of County Code Enforcement.
Trinidad explained that Ag grading projects of this type in San Luis Obispo County are expedited through an Alternate Review Program, vetted by local Resource Conservation Districts. In this case, the Upper Salinas/ Las Tables Resource Conservation District entered into an agreement with Estate Vineyards LLC, representing Justin to construct a 21-acer foot reservoir.
"The initial review didn't include any grading permit request or any impact to the surrounding environment or we would have required that the project include these specifics and reviews of land use, impact and a potential environmental impact report if required by CEQA," Trinidad said. "We are very early in our investigation and have yet to determine the action we need to take. Though fines could be associated with these types of violations, I can't say at this time what will be done."
The other issue, according to Trinidad, is with the grading for the project. It exceeded the 30 percent slope requirement, a count-imposed limit and qualifies the project for a review by County Planning staff. He said that the biggest issue at the moment is erosion.
"The first thing we are going to require of the project is that they mitigate the movement of silt onto other properties and into the waterways," he said. "This will be implemented immediately."
Trinidad also address the question of whether or not the company would be able to continue work on the property, saying that they can still keep drilling wells to fill the 6.1 million-gallon pond because that part of the project didn't require a permit. The pond would be used to facilitate the 200 acres of grapes being planted on the site.
"The good thing is that the Upper Salinas/ Las Tables Resource Conservation District drafted a letter of termination June 9 effectively ending the Alternate Review Program agreement entered into with Estate Vineyards LLC, representing The Wonderful Company, who own Justin Vineyards and Winery," Trinidad said. "This means they can't move any more earth on the property or continue to remove trees."
The letter, drafted by the Upper Salinas/ Las Tables Resource Conservation District, outlines the violations of the agreement — the RCD was not notified prior to construction of the final start and end dates for the project, the permit to move earth was not posted on-site, and prior to removing any tree a nesting survey is required.
Trinidad was asked what the community can do about the trees already removed and how to protect existing trees.
"The County can't do anything about the tree removals that already occurred until an ordinance that protects them is in place," he said.
Many community members spoke against the excessive tree removal and addressed other concerns as well. The Heaton Family, which owns the property adjacent to the project said that the erosion will destroy their family farm, which has been in their family since 1890. Linda Heaton said that the two-foot silt fence that was butted up against the fence of their poperty would not hold.
"What will the erosion mitigation measures be and when will they be implemented?" she asked.
Trinidad answered by saying that the County will require that the project utilize an erosion expert to put in sedimentation and erosion control measures, which will be implemented immediately and preceed the permit application.
There is about 60 acres of trees left on the property of the original 130 acres. To protect the remaining 60 acres, community members signed a petition to request that the County Board of Supervisors implement an ordinance that protects the trees. Trinidad said that with any law, implementation requires a vote, and if the BOS wanted to draft an urgency ordinance, a 3/5 vote would be required.
The other big issue is with regulation of well drilling and the County's agreement with the Ag Board that formed a low-cost alternative to obtaining a county grading permit, known as an Agricultural Grading Permit. This is regulated by the RCD, which helps with environmental review, permit assistance with regulatory agencies and erosion control training.
Justin Vineyards and Winery is owned by The Wonderful Company, which purchased the winery in 2010. They also own FIJI Water, Justin Wines, Landmark Wines, POM Wonderful, Suterra, Teleflora, Wonderful Almonds, Wonderful Pistachios and Wonderful Sweet Scarletts. Both Justin Vineyards and The Wonderful Company were contacted for a statement, but neither responded. To learn more about The Wonderful Company visit wonderful.com.
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