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SLO County pursues oak protections after hundreds of trees removed for Justin vineyard

San Luis Obispo County officials say they expect to introduce an oak protection ordinance in the coming weeks in response to the recent removal of hundreds of oak trees from a property west of Paso Robles owned by a subsidiary of multinational firm The Wonderful Co.

An investigation by county code enforcement officials found that the subsidiary, Estate Vineyards LLC, violated county codes by grading on slopes greater than 30 percent, said Art Trinidade, county code enforcement officer.

More than 100 people attended a community meeting at a Templeton nursery Monday evening to protest the removal of the oak trees and the construction of a 20-acre-foot agricultural reservoir that is expected to suck 6 million gallons of water out of the groundwater aquifer. In its permit application to build the reservoir, Estate Vineyards LLC said it planned to develop the 315-acre parcel into a vineyard for Justin Wines, a Wonderful Co. brand.

County Supervisor Debbie Arnold, who attended the Monday meeting, said she and Supervisor Frank Mecham are planning to introduce an oak protection ordinance. However, crafting the ordinance is expected to take county planners several weeks, said Bill Robeson, deputy county planning director.

The ordinance needs to be properly worded so that it protects oaks but does not prohibit property owners from removing hazardous or nuisance oaks, Arnold said.

Estate Vineyards denies any wrongdoing and has said it intends to plant 5,000 oak trees to replace the ones it removed. The company owns 18 properties in the North County totaling 1,666 acres.

Santa Barbara and Monterey counties have oak protection ordinances on the books. San Luis Obispo County planners introduced an oak protection ordinance 20 years ago, but it was not enacted because of opposition from property owners, Arnold said.

Meanwhile, county code enforcement officials are still processing the grading violation and don’t know yet what sanctions will be levied against Estate Vineyards LLC.

“We are still in the beginning phases of investigating this violation,” Robeson said. “These things take a little bit of time to process.”

The Upper Salinas-Las Tablas Resource Conservation District has also issued a stop-work order on the construction of the 20-acre-foot reservoir, citing multiple violations of the work permit.

Residents at Monday’s meeting expressed outrage at the removal of hundreds of oaks from the Estate Vineyards property.

“I am afraid that greed and avarice will be our undoing,” said Bill Spencer of Creston, expressing a common sentiment at the meeting.

Justin Smith of Saxum Vineyards said it is cheaper to buy oak woodlands and then clear the land than it is to buy cleared land. He agreed that an oak ordinance is necessary.

“There is a loophole that we need to patch up,” he said.

Mark Adams, another neighbor of the property, said there needs to be public oversight before someone is allowed to remove a large amount of trees.

“At least let us have a voice before it happens,” he said. “Let us review it from an ecological standpoint.”

Neil Heaton, who owns 85 acres next to the Estate Vineyards property, said he is afraid that wells recently drilled on the neighboring property to supply the 20-acre-foot reservoir could cause his domestic well to go dry.

He also said winter rains will cause massive erosion on the stripped hillsides of the Estate Vineyards property that will cause sedimentation on his property.

“An environmental disaster is happening,” he said. “The project next to us threatens our very existence and the ability to stay on our land.”

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