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Petition protesting oak removal gathers more than 165 signatures

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

Groups of North County residents angry about the removal of hundreds of oak trees and construction of a large agricultural reservoir on land west of Paso Robles are planning to file protest petitions Tuesday with the San Luis Obispo County Board of Supervisors.

The groups, Save Adelaida and the Willow Creek Protection Group, have gathered 165 signatures on the petitions and expect to gather more by Tuesday, said Diane Burkhart, a Willow Creek Road resident.

“That’s quite a bit for an active little group that is just trying to combat what is going on out here,” she said.

Clear-cutting of hundreds of oak trees, grading on steep terrain and construction of a large reservoir that would be filled with groundwater has sparked widespread outrage among many residents of the county. The property off the 1300 block of Willow Creek Road is owned by Estate Vineyards LLC and managed by Justin Vineyards. Estate Vineyards is a subsidiary of the multinational agricultural firm the Wonderful Co., and Justin Wines is one of its many brands. Estate Vineyards owns 18 properties in the North County totaling 1,666 acres.

The petition specifically asks the Board of Supervisors to review plans to plant as many as 240 acres of vineyards and build a 20 acre-foot reservoir to irrigate those vineyards and reduce those sizes if they do not meet existing land-use ordinances.

“The damage to the environment and amount of water to be pumped from the ground leaves us fearful for neighboring water supplies,” the petition states.

It also asks supervisors to adopt an ordinance that regulates “deforestation, over-grading and excessive pumping and storage of well water in the future.”

North County supervisors Debbie Arnold and Frank Mecham have already called for an oak protection ordinance that is expected to be introduced in the coming weeks.

“We are hoping the oak protection ordinance can be passed quickly,” Burkhart said. “Later, we are hoping for more oversight on groundwater pumping.”

Supervisors considered an oak protection ordinance 20 years ago, but it was never adopted due to opposition by the county agricultural community over property rights concerns.

Many of the signatures were collected at a meeting Monday evening in Templeton that drew more than 100 people. The Templeton Area Advisory Group was also planning to discuss the oak issue at a meeting Thursday evening.

Details of the ordinance are not yet available pending direction from the Board of Supervisors, said county Planning Director Jim Bergman.

“There are many different ordinances and lots of options for us to choose from, but we will wait until we get specific instructions from the board,” he said.

Supervisors do not have an oak ordinance on the Tuesday agenda, but the North County residents plan to submit their petitions during the meeting’s public comment period. Supervisors could then briefly discuss the matter and give county staff direction.

County code enforcement officials have inspected the Estate Vineyards property and determined that the company violated county rules by grading on slopes greater than 30 percent and issued a stop-work order June 9. County staffers are still investigating the violation and have not yet determined what enforcement action they will take, Bergman said.

“We expect to have a determination within the next week or so,” Bergman said Thursday. “No work is going on at the site at this time.”

The Upper Salinas-Las Tablas Resource Conservation District also issued a second stop-work order June 9 for the property over violations of a work agreement for the construction of the agricultural reservoir.

The Wonderful Co. has not responded to repeated requests for more information about the work it plans for the property. However, the company issued a statement last week denying any wrongdoing.

Steven Clark, a Wonderful Co. spokesman, said the company was disappointed with the stop-work orders.

“However, we have developed a productive working relationship with the county and will continue to cooperate with them to address their concerns,” he said.

The Wonderful Co. is owned by Stewart and Lynda Resnick. The company has been criticized for ongoing water use in California’s Central Valley during severe drought conditions as well as commandeering large amounts of fresh water in Fiji where the company fills millions of bottles of its Fiji brand drinking water.

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