[caption id="attachment_86014" align="alignnone" width="500"] A lawsuit filed in late 2013 claims the 48-acre expansion at Paul Hobbs Winery near Sebastopol should fall under the purview of the California Environmental Quality Act. (courtesy of Paul Hobbs Winery)[/caption]

A group is hoping to slow a vineyard expansion project at Paul Hobbs Winery by arguing that the California Environmental Quality Act should apply, a position that many in the wine industry said could lead to unintended consequences by usurping what they say is an important local provision.

The group, called the The Watertrough Children's Alliance in Sebastopol, is far from the first to bring CEQA to the legal table in opposing a vineyard or land-use issue. But the group's efforts also include contesting the permit that the Sonoma County Agricultural Commission issued for the expansion under the Sonoma County Grading, Drainage and Vineyard and Orchard Site Development Ordinance, which is exempt from CEQA. State law, the group argues, should supersede that ordinance, also known as VESCO.

In response to the group's lawsuit filed late last year that claims the 48-acre expansion at Paul Hobbs Winery should fall under the purview of CEQA, John Holdredge, an attorney for Geary, Shea, O'Donnell, Grattan & Mitchell representing the winery, wrote that using CEQA over the local Sonoma County ordinance would effectively render VESCO "inoperative."

"It is critical to understand that the ordinance contains a 'poison pill' provision, so if petitioners were successful in this matter, then the ordinance would be automatically rendered inoperative by its own terms, which means there would be no rules for vineyard development in this county, and the environmental protections this ordinance affords would be gone," Mr. Holdredge wrote in the response. "As a result, a 'win' for the petitioner would be a huge 'loss' for our environment."

At the core of the issue is whether or not the VESCO ordinance should be considered "ministerial" or "discretionary." If the court ruled that VESCO was discretionary, as the alliance argues, CEQA would be the prevailing environmental measure, according to Mr. Holdredge.

But Paul Carroll, the attorney representing the Watertrough Alliance, dismissed the notion that using CEQA in place of VESCO would lead to zero local environmental protections.

"I'm not terribly concerned about the poison-pill provision," Mr. Carroll said. "I don't think the county of Sonoma is suddenly going to allow vineyard development without any oversight whatsoever. There are too many agencies who oversee the environment to allow unfettered development."

Many in the industry are watching closely, with concern that if CEQA becomes the prevailing law governing vineyard development in Sonoma County, vineyards and grape growers could be saddled with significant extra costs and possibly lose competitiveness with other counties that are exempted from CEQA such as Mendocino.

"The impact of CEQA review would be very negative for Sonoma County agriculture and grape growing," said Karissa Kruse, president of the Sonoma County Winegrape Commission. "In most cases, it would be cost prohibitive for vineyard development. It would greatly affect the overall economic impact of the wine industry in Sonoma County. CEQA is not good for agriculture, for grape growers or for Sonoma County’s economy."

Grape growers, she said, are primarily small business owners, with 80 percent of the county's vineyards less than 100 acres and over 40 percent less than 20 acres, and as such "they would be at a disadvantage."

Mr. Holdredge noted the matter has already been argued in previous court battles, pointing in court papers to the case of Forest Unlimited vs. Sonoma County Board of Supervisors in 2011, with the court ruling the ordinance to be ministerial.

Mr. Carroll said the alliance is concerned chiefly about potential pesticides and the proximity of the expanded vineyard to five schools in west county. He added that the group, and environmentalists in general, aren't suggesting CEQA apply to all small-scale vineyard developments, but larger ones such as with Paul Hobbs Winery.

"One thing that needs to be pointed out is that these vineyard developments can be massive. The idea that they are not subject to CEQA review is not correct. They are really very significant projects," Mr. Carroll said. "No one is concerned about a four acre or six acre vineyard, but this is large and some are far, far larger."

Yet Mr. Holdredge said that vineyard owners themselves are in favor of responsible oversight, and that the VESCO ordinance has achieved the goal on its own.

"We as a community are better off with this, and fortunately I have a client who is willing to fight to keep this important piece of environmental legislation in place," he said.