After more than two years of bitter dispute between environmentalists and the wine industry over the rapid increase in vineyard plantings in Sonoma County, the County Board of Supervisors approved an ordinance permitting further vineyard development in one of California's best-known wine regions.
The new Vineyard Erosion and Sediment Control Ordinance, which goes into effect on March 9, establishes a protocol for approving future vineyard development. It also requires that any proposed sites be certified by county-appointed civil and agricultural engineers in order to minimize soil erosion.
Ten years ago Sonoma County had only 17,400 acres of vines, but by 1998 that figure was up to nearly 44,700 acres, according to the Sonoma County Agricultural Commission. Today, grapevines cover 50,000 acres of the county, and wineries have filed plans to develop an additional 7,300 acres of land not currently planted to grapes.
Arguing that this vineyard expansion is negatively impacting Sonoma County's water supply and wildlife habitats, some environmental organizations, such as the Sierra Club, have been fighting for the passage of laws that would tightly restrict future plantings.
While winemakers are hailing the approved ordinance as a compromise solution, several environmental groups remain dissatisfied. "Part of our concern is that the people who'll approve these plans will have a market incentive to maintain a good relationship with the growers," said Mark Green, executive director of Sonoma County Conservation Action, a local environmental group.
The majority of Sonoma County winemakers backed the ordinance after changes assured that vineyard plantings would not be regulated by the California Environmental Quality Act, a law which could require elaborate review of any vineyard development. Growers feared that securing CEQA approvals would be expensive and time-consuming.
Even fans of the ordinance acknowledge that further discussion -- and protest -- is inevitable. "Some factions will never be happy," said Patrick Campbell of Laurel Glen Winery. "You've got old-time farmers who don't want anyone telling them what to do with private property, and people in the far-left environmental community who don't want any more commercial development of Sonoma County land."
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