Vineyards, olive farm ask for exemptions from moratorium on planting crops

dsneed@thetribunenews.comOctober 2, 2013 

Newly planted vines are seen in the area of South El Pomar and El Pomar roads, east of Templeton, in July.

JOE JOHNSTON — jjohnston@thetribunenews.com Buy Photo

Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly identified Cellar 360 as being the owner of Estrella River Vineyard.

Four vineyards and a small olive farm have applied for exemptions to the county’s moratorium on planting irrigated crops in the Paso Robles groundwater basin.

According to information provided by acting county planning director Kami Griffin, the five exemption requests would cover 1,104 acres and are spread throughout the sprawling 505,000-acre groundwater basin.

Here are the requested exemptions:

  • Beth McCown plans to plant 400 olive trees on 4 acres on Vista Del Paso Road off Highway 41 outside of Creston. In a letter to the county, she said she and her husband have invested more than $115,000 getting ready to plant the trees.
  • Continental Vineyards plans to plant 180 acres of grapes off Highway 46 East near Whitley Gardens. According to its website, Continental Vineyards is now a part of Broken Earth Winery of Paso Robles.
  • Justin Vineyards plans to plant 300 acres of grapes east of Templeton at Creston Road and El Pomar Drive. Justin Vineyards is a large Paso Robles winery established in 1981 with an annual production of 45,000 cases. It is owned by Roll International Corp., owner of FIJI Water, POM Wonderful and other companies.
  • Estrella River Vineyard plans to plant 170 acres of grapes east of Paso Robles near Jardine Road.
  • Vino Farms, a smaller winery based in Lodi, is planting 450 acres of vines just east of San Miguel. The company began planting in July and continued planting after the emergency ordinance was passed. Based on the information supplied to the county, the company can make a good case for an exemption, Griffin said.

The five farms applied for the exemptions after county supervisors passed an emergency ordinance Aug. 27. The ordinance forbids the planting of any new irrigated crops unless the water they use is offset by conservation elsewhere in the basin.

However, a farm that had made significant investments in preparing to plant its crop prior to Aug. 27 can apply for an exemption, called a vested right. The exact criteria for establishing a vested right are a matter of intense controversy.

At a hearing Tuesday, county Supervisor Debbie Arnold refused to approve an extension of the emergency ordinance from its current 45 days to two years because she said the proposed vested rights criteria are too restrictive. She also did not want to extend the ordinance until the vested rights issue is clarified.

She said she would be open to discussing a shorter extension in order to give more time to clarify the issue. “You can’t just postpone the definition of an ordinance and still pass it,” she told The Tribune on Wednesday.

Supervisors have scheduled two additional hearings next week on Tuesday and Friday to resolve the issue before the ordinance expires at the end of Friday. If the ordinance is allowed to expire, the whole question of vested rights becomes moot because the planting moratorium would go away.

If the ordinance is extended, supervisors will hold a hearing in mid-November to clarify the vested rights criteria. Until then, no decisions on any of the five requests for vested rights will be made, Griffin said.

“We’ll just hang on to them and see what happens,” she said.

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