Justin Vineyards continues restoration on land clear-cut of oaks

At the Justin Vineyards property on Sleepy Farm Road, jute mats cover seeded hillsides and silt fencing has been installed to prevent erosion during the winter rainy season.
At the Justin Vineyards property on Sleepy Farm Road, jute mats cover seeded hillsides and silt fencing has been installed to prevent erosion during the winter rainy season.

In the four months since Justin Vineyards and Winery clear-cut thousands of oak trees on a North County property, its parent company has made efforts to undo the damage — but there’s still work to be done.

The brand — which is owned by the Los Angeles-based, multinational Wonderful Co. — cut down trees and graded steep hillsides on a 380-acre property at 750 Sleepy Farm Road to make room for wine grape vines and a large agricultural pond. San Luis Obispo County officials issued a stop-work order in June.

To restore the land and prevent large-scale erosion, crews have been working since July to install anti-erosion barriers in three phases, efforts that should be completed by Friday. Art Trinidade, a county code enforcement supervisor, said staff’s main concern is making sure winter rains don’t push dirt and debris down the now-bare hillsides and into Sheep Camp Creek and other drainage channels that run through the site and nearby properties.

“Our immediate concern right now is to make sure the project stays where it is and doesn’t end up downstream,” Trinidade said.

Oak tree outrage

In June, it was legal to cut down oak trees in unincorporated parts of the county. County officials’ main concerns then were Justin Vineyards’ grading on steep surfaces and failure to notify the Upper Salinas-Las Tablas Resource Conservation District of its tree removal, so that a survey of nesting birds could be conducted.

But public outrage over the clear-cutting — including boycotts of Justin Vineyards wines — prompted county supervisors in July to enact an urgency ordinance that allows landowners to remove only a certain percentage of their oak canopies without a permit.

A related agricultural pond urgency ordinance was also put in place to eliminate an alternative review process and ensure all permits for reservoirs go through the county. Justin Vineyards’ permit was reviewed and approved by the resource conservation district, not county staff.

Representatives from Justin Vineyards and Winery on Wednesday said work has begun on a three-phase plan to repair the 380-acre Sleepy Farm Road property west of Paso Robles, where thousands of mature oak trees were removed and steep hillsides impr

Site restoration

Trinidade estimated that overall site restoration will cost the Wonderful Co. about $10 million — about $3 million to $5 million will fund erosion control, with the rest going to correct grading issues, he said.

Initial restoration involved the installation of silt fencing along the property boundaries, Trinidade said. Next, workers laid jute mats — blankets of fibrous mesh — and installed rolls of straw over the tree-less hillsides to prevent the flow of water. The large pond will remain until the end of the rainy season, when workers will fill it in, he said.

Regrading the property will be the next step, Trinidade said. He said he expects staff will soon receive project plans, which they’ll evaluate before approving a grading permit.

Steven Clark, a Wonderful Co. spokesman, said via email last week the company isn’t allowing media to photograph the property. Clark on Wednesday provided the Tribune with an updated photo of the site.

The company is still searching for nonprofit partners to help it determine long-range plans for the site, he said.

“Right now, we have nothing new to report or announce,” Clark said. “Our primary focus has been working with the county on our site remediation efforts.”

Neighbors and nonprofits

Justin Vineyards President David Ricanti said in July the company hoped to identify a nonprofit partner to potentially take ownership of the site or help create an easement by mid-October. But Kaila Dettman, executive director of the Land Conservancy of San Luis Obispo County, which the Wonderful Co. approached a few months ago, said the organization is holding off on making any commitments until restoration efforts are farther down the road.

“We’re still thoughtfully considering it,” Dettman said.

Dettman said the Land Conservancy has received a mixed bag of feedback from residents regarding whether the nonprofit should partner with the Wonderful Co. She said she hopes to receive more comments in the coming months.

Neil Heaton, who owns 85 acres next to the Sleepy Farm Road site, said Wonderful Co. representatives have kept him informed of their plans. Workers have been active nearly every day, clearing debris and installing erosion control barriers, he said.

“In general, it looks like a beehive back there most days,” Heaton said.

The work has generated a significant amount of dust, which workers have controlled using large quantities of water, Heaton said. He said his only concern is workers’ groundwater use, which he fears will affect the well on his property.

Even so, Heaton said he wants to be a “good neighbor” to Justin Vineyards and give the Wonderful Co. a chance to fix things.

“The proof is in the pudding,” he said.

Lindsey Holden: 805-781-7939, @lindseyholden27

Rancher Neil Heaton talks about large-scale oak tree removal and other work on property owned by The Wonderful Company and managed by Justin Vineyards near Paso Robles. "This development, if allowed to continue, will mean the end of our way of lif

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Want to provide the Land Conservancy of San Luis Obispo with feedback on the Justin Vineyards and Winery project? Contact their office at 805-544-9096 or lc@lcslo.org.

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