Paso Robles vineyard that cut down oaks is told again to halt work

How loss of oak trees could lead to 'the end of our way of life'

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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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

Estate Vineyards LLC, a subsidiary of multinational The Wonderful Company, has received a second stop-work order for a rural parcel west of Paso Robles where hundreds of oak trees have been removed and large amounts of earth-moving has stripped the landscape.

On Thursday, the Upper Salinas-Las Tablas Resource Conservation District sent a letter to Estate Vineyards LLC, which owns the property at 750 Sleepy Farm Road, saying the agency was terminating a work agreement it had issued to the property owners allowing them to build a large agricultural pond.

In the letter, agency executive director Devin Best said the owners had committed three violations of the pond construction permit: The company had failed to inform the agency of construction start and end times, failed to publicly post the work permit before work started, and failed to notify the agency of tree removal so surveys for nesting birds could be conducted.

“In all instances mentioned above, Estate Vineyards LLC has not complied,” the letter stated.

On Thursday, the county issued its own stop-work order, citing possible violations of the county’s grading ordinance. County Supervisor Frank Mecham, whose district includes the Paso Robles area, said he has received numerous complaints from neighbors about the oak tree removal, earth-moving on steep slopes and possible groundwater depletion.

On Friday, construction of the agricultural pond appeared to have stopped. The Tribune visited a neighboring property with a view of the Estate Vineyards parcel and could see no pond construction or earth-moving underway.

However, crews were busy splitting piles of oak into firewood and chipping wood from the hundreds of trees and manzanita bushes that have been removed from the parcel.

County Planning Director Jim Bergman said the county will allow that work to continue in order to reduce the fire hazard on the property. “But no other work will be allowed,” Bergman said.

Estate Vineyards LLC is the vineyard landholding subsidiary for The Wonderful Company, a spokesman said. The subsidiary owns 1,666 acres on 18 parcels in the Creston Road, Chimney Rock and Willow Creek areas, according to county records.

In an email, Steven Clark, a spokesman for The Wonderful Company, said land at 750 Sleepy Farm Road was being cleared so it could be planted with vineyards. He denied violating any county or state grading codes.

“The recent notice from the county was to verify compliance with grading ordinances, of which we do not anticipate any issues, and was not related to tree or brush removal,” he said. “We recognize the beauty and importance of our natural resources, and as part of this process, beginning this fall and throughout 2017, we will be planting 5,000 oak trees across our properties.”

The Wonderful Company did not respond to several follow-up questions emailed by The Tribune.

The $4.8 billion company is based in Los Angeles and owned by Stewart and Lynda Resnick. It owns multiple agricultural and water subsidiaries, with brands including Fiji Water, Justin Wines, Landmark Wines, Pom Wonderful, Wonderful Almonds, Wonderful Pistachios, Wonderul Halos and Wonderful Sweet Scarletts. It also owns Suterra pest control and Teleflora floral delivery.

Neighbor’s worries

At the Sleepy Farm Road site, neighbor Neil Heaton said his two main concerns are that his domestic well could go dry and that the first rainstorm will cause erosion on the denuded hillsides of the Estate Vineyards property that will dump large amounts of sediment into Sheep Camp Creek, which runs through his property. Heaton owns 85 acres where he dry-farms wine grapes and walnuts.

Estate Vineyards has drilled several new wells near the Heaton property line to fill the large agricultural pond being built. Groundwater in the area is contained in fractured rock and probably does not contain enough water to fill the pond without making his well go dry, Heaton said.

“If they are allowed to proceed, wells will dry up in the whole area,” he said.

The Heaton family said they were shocked when they saw hundreds of oaks being removed and grading being done on the Estate Vineyards site. Most farmers in the area do not irrigate their crops.

“You just don’t see that kind of thing out here,” Craig Heaton, Neil Heaton’s son, said. “We are just trying to make a living.”

David Sneed: 805-781-7930