Last night I attended a public hearing at the Kenwood Fire Station, organized by the Sonoma County Agricultural Commissioner’s office, presenting a draft ordinance governing vineyard (and orchard) development involving tree removal. The meeting was surprisingly cordial, and well-managed by Commissioner Tony Linegar. I’m not planning to do any in-depth reportage here, but want to offer a personal perspective—a perspective I intend to transmit to the Ag Commission and the Board of Supervisors before the close of public comment tomorrow, April 13th.
Briefly, back in the late 1990s a few land owners planning to develop vineyards did some very bad things with bulldozers on forested slopes; I recall there was a particularly egregious and visible example on Westside Road outside Healdsburg. This haphazard land clearing led to serious erosion and damage to properties downslope from the offending parties. In response, County officials adopted a set of rules in 2000 to limit hillside clearing and development, and mandate best management practices in order to minimize the risk of erosion. The Vineyard Erosion and Sediment Control Ordinance (VESCO) was modeled on a similar set of regulations adopted by Napa County in 1991.
Recently several vineyard development proposals requiring clearing of forest in west and northwest Sonoma County have encountered determined opposition from various parties. In response to this opposition, on January 31, 2012 the Board of Supervisors imposed a four month moratorium on the processing and approval of applications for permits for site development on ridgetops, and Level II vineyard and orchard site development on any land that includes the removal of trees. The moratorium was intended to allow the Ag Commissioner’s office to develop new rules amending VESCO, specifically directed to mitigate the risks of erosion and sediment deposition arising from tree removal on slopes, especially slopes with erodible and/or low-cohesion soils. The Board directed that these new rules be explicitly “science-based.”
The Ag Commission doesn’t have staff with the expertise to develop scienced-based regulations in this area, so they selected the geotechnical consulting firm LACO Associates to develop the draft ordinance. Facing a very tight timeline to develop the amendments, the Commissioners office organized a series of separate meetings with LACO and “stakeholder groups” to get input on the new regulations. LACO’s report was released April 5th, and can be found here.
“Environmental Activists” vs. “Agricultural Interests”
Last night was the final public meeting before the Ag Commissioner presents the draft ordinance amendments to the Board of Supervisors on April 24th. Before the meeting I read the draft proposal and the local media coverage, and was looking for a better understanding of the issue. The media tend to present this sort of issue as environmentalists opposing agricultural development. Those present at last night’s meeting did not appear to me to fall so neatly into such facile, shopworn categorizations.
We’re All Environmentalists
It appeared to me that nearly everyone at the meeting is a landowner in Sonoma County. Everyone at the meeting seemed to understand that tree removal increases the risk of soil erosion, and accept the need to elaborate a regulatory framework to minimize the risk of soil loss and sediment deposition in the County’s waterways. It seemed to me that everyone at the meeting supported the ideals of stewardship and responsibility to future generations.
Differences In Emphasis
At the meeting the audience did split into two general camps. One group seems focused on the negative effects of sediment deposition on steelhead and salmon habitat, as well as wider issues of development of any sort degrading riparian habitat and watershed performance. The other group seems focused on the negative effects of complying with new regulations on the viability of the agricultural economy. I would call them pro- and anti-development camps. It seemed to me that some in the pro-development camp put too much emphasis on individual property rights, oppose regulation in general, and are disgruntled that these new regs are going to be passed in some form or other. And it seemed to me that some in the anti-development camp put too little emphasis on individual property rights, feel that the draft regs are too narrow in scope, and are disgruntled that the Board is not re-opening debate on all of VESCO as well as removing the responsibility for regulation of agricultural development from the Ag Commissioner’s office.
Some See THIS…
Leading To THIS…
And Then To THIS:
While Others See THIS…
Leading To THIS…
Or To THIS:
When we developed our vineyard in 2000-2001 we developed an erosion control and drainage plan with a civil engineering firm (Atterbury & Associates) that went above and beyond the requirements of VESCO. We have yet to plant the steepest area of our property, and though our development calls for zero tree removal we need to know if and how the new regulations will affect us. I came away from last night’s meeting with a list of questions and concerns to address to the Ag Commissioner and Supervisors:
- Hasty regulation makes bad regulation. I acknowledge the efforts of the working group and am impressed with all that has been accomplished in the short time they have had to develop the draft regulations. However, I see a need for refinement and clarification.
- I don’t see where the issue of overlapping jurisdiction has been addressed. If a project proposes to clear-cut standing forest to develop vineyard or orchard, the applicant must submit a Timber Harvest Plan (THP) to the State Department of Forestry and CAL FIRE for review and approval. I would like to see that County has conducted a process review to assure that VESCO mandates are consonant with THP protocols and that there is no duplication of effort between County and State agencies.
- The working group should definitively state which predictive soil loss model, or aggregate of models, will be used in assessing the risk factors and mitigation measures required for all projects; the choice of model should not be left to the discretion of the applicant. A mechanism for periodic internal review of model effectiveness, and model revision, should be incorporated into the ordinance.
- The BMPs should emphasize the use of soil-building measures, especially cover crops but including mulches, compost and biochar, as well as engineered solutions that encourage sheet flow of runoff contained on the applicant parcel. Engineered solutions that channelize runoff have the potential to deliver flows at higher energies to properties downslope from applicant projects, necessitating cascades of mitigation or creating the potential for tort action.
- The sections in the draft ordinance covering peer review, post-development monitoring, spot compliance inspection, ensuring mitigation if non-compliance occurs, and sanctioning persistent non-compliance are troublingly vague. The Board should define and clarify these areas, and accept public input, before a final vote on changes to the ordinance.
- It seems extraordinary that only Level II applicant projects involving tree removal will be subject to peer review and monitoring. The Board should clarify whether projects with already-approved Level II grading and erosion control plans under VESCO will be required to re-submit to certify that no tree removal is taking place, and whether Level II projects not involving tree removal will be also subject to peer review and monitoring.
- The County needs to assure applicants that the resources are available to process these enhanced applications in an efficient, timely and impartial manner.
- The citizens of Sonoma County deserve a transparent and comprehensive accounting of the sources and uses of the funds necessary to implement this enhanced regulation. The Board should require realistic fees from project applicants to pay for peer review and inspection, but any budgetary increases not covered by fees should be clearly explained to taxpayers.