San Luis Obispo County Code Enforcement officials have issued a stop-work order to a rural property west of Paso Robles managed by Justin Vineyards for possible grading violations and the removal of hundreds of oak trees.
Code enforcement officials inspected the property at 750 Sleepy Farm Road on Thursday morning and issued the stop-work order that afternoon, County Planning Director Jim Bergman said.
“We believe there is enough information to justify the stop-work order,” he said. “We are contacting other agencies and should have a final determination early next week. It’s all about information gathering at this point.”
Bergman said his department should have a final determination of whether county codes had been violated by early next week.
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The property has been the subject of numerous complaints by neighbors in recent days concerning the removal of hundreds of oak trees, earth moving and the construction of a large water storage pond, said county Supervisor Frank Mecham, who met with about a dozen neighbors of the property Thursday morning in Templeton.
“My opinion is that we are beginning to see the cumulative effects of grape planting, and we don’t know the full impact that is creating,” Mecham said.
The property owners are listed by the County Assessor’s Office as Estate Vineyards LLC, but the property is managed by Justin Vineyards, Mecham and neighbors said. Justin Vineyards property is also owned by Estate Vineyards LLC. The oak removal is in preparation for planting vineyards.
Justin Vineyards did not return a call for comment Thursday.
Records with the county assessor and the building and planning departments show Estate Vineyards owns 1,666 acres on 18 different parcels in the Creston Road, Chimney Rock and Willow Creek areas. The Sleepy Farm Road parcel is one of several that Estate Vineyards owns in the area.
They are denuding the landscape and taking all the resources. It looks like a strip mine.
Neil Heaton, neighbor
Justin Smith of Saxum Vineyards, which is a mile away from the Sleepy Farm Road site, said his main concerns are the oak tree removal and groundwater use. He did not have an estimate of how many oaks had been removed but said it must be in the hundreds based on the amount of firewood he’s seen trucked from the property in recent weeks.
“Removing that many oaks is something that someone who lives in the area would never do,” Smith said. “Oaks are what make Paso Robles beautiful.”
Art Trinidade, county building division supervisor, said removing oaks on agricultural land is not prohibited. However, grading has been done on steep slopes, which may be a violation due to the possibility of erosion and creek sedimentation. The state Department of Fish and Wildlife also inspected the property but did not issue any violations.
Neil Heaton owns 85 acres next to the Sleepy Farm Road site where he dry-farms 20 acres of wine grapes as well as 20 acres of walnuts.
His property has three homes on it that are served by a 345-foot-deep well. He is concerned that the pumping needed to fill a 20-acre-foot pond that has been installed on the neighboring property will cause his well to go dry.
“Our concern is that our aquifer is in fractured rock and nobody knows how much water is actually available,” he said. “Water is the lifeblood of our farm. If our well goes dry tomorrow, what do we do?”
Heaton is also concerned about the removal of oaks and what impact that will have on the area’s natural ecosystems and wildlife.
“They are denuding the landscape and taking all the resources,” he said. “It looks like a strip mine.”
Mecham said he recommended that neighbors and vineyard owners in the area petition the county Board of Supervisors to adopt an ordinance that would prevent the removal of stands of old-growth oak trees.
“The county proposed an ordinance like that about a decade ago but it was rejected by the agricultural community,” Mecham said. “I think an oak tree ordinance will likely come back, and we’ll see if the ag industry is interested in it.”