Protests prompt SLO County to consider emergency oak tree protections

Several San Luis Obispo County residents were on hand at Tuesday’s supervisors’ meeting to make public comments against the removal of hundreds of oaks at a west Paso Robles property managed by Justin Vineyards.
Several San Luis Obispo County residents were on hand at Tuesday’s supervisors’ meeting to make public comments against the removal of hundreds of oaks at a west Paso Robles property managed by Justin Vineyards. jjohnston@thetribunenews.com

Oaks are more than just trees in North County — to many, they’re a crucial part of the Central Coast’s delicate, drought-ridden ecosystem.

On Tuesday, that was the message dozens of farmers, residents and environmentalists delivered to the San Luis Obispo County Board of Supervisors as they protested the recent clear-cutting of hundreds — some speakers said thousands, based on their own investigations — of oak trees on land managed by Justin Vineyards & Winery, just west of Paso Robles.

Supervisors responded by taking the first steps toward adopting the county’s first-ever tree protection ordinance.

“There are people out there right now probably sharpening their chainsaws,” said Diane Burkhart, who presented the board with a petition signed by about 400 people requesting protections for oak trees.

The site under fire is a 315-acre parcel at 750 Sleepy Farm Road owned by Estate Vinyards LLC, a subsidiary of the multinational Wonderful Co. — Justin is one of the company’s brands.

After neighbors protested the tree removals and construction of a large water-storage pond on the property, the county issued a stop-work order on June 9. Officials said they’re evaluating potential penalties for grading violations, but not tree removal because the county has no oak protection ordinance in unincorporated areas.

A few moments in the life of a valley oak tree on Vineyard Drive, north of Highway 46, in the North County.

After hearing more than an hour of often emotional public comments Tuesday from residents, supervisors said they were ready to move ahead after decades of false starts on oak ordinances.

Tree protections weren’t on the board’s agenda, which prevented supervisors from taking any action. But all five had something negative to say about the oak removal.

Supervisor Adam Hill called the clear-cutting an “egregious attack on nature.”

And Supervisor Bruce Gibson referred to it as “the most appalling demonstration of corporate greed I’ve seen in a very long time.”

Supervisor Frank Mecham proposed directing staff to create a temporary tree ordinance to tide the county over until more permanent regulations can be put in place, and the other supervisors quickly jumped on board.

Chairwoman Lynn Compton said she thought it important to consider differences between commercial land and residential properties and the types of trees the county should protect. She also said the board should think about how to punish violators, as fines would probably prove ineffective when dealing with mega companies like Wonderful.

“What I think is really sad about this situation is you hear many growers come up and talk about ‘You know, we grew up here, we lived on the land, we farm and we don’t do stuff like this,’ ” Compton said. “And then you have some out-of-town corporation ... and they really come in and spoil it for everyone.”

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

Supervisors will consider an emergency ordinance, which would be in place for at least 45 days, at a special July 15 meeting. The board received a round of applause from the audience after the vote.

For most of the residents who spoke — some wearing “Just No” stickers parodying Justin’s logo — the oak removal represents a conflict between a multibillion-dollar company and the small family farms and ranches that dot the North County region.

Although some environmental advocates appeared, including Bill Waycott from the California Native Plant Society, many of the speakers ranch and farm in the area. They said they were proud of their use of dry farming and other techniques that allow them to maintain their livelihoods while conserving resources.

Some admitted to having had concerns about tree protections in the past, but said they now see a need for rules that would protect their land from agribusinesses that apparently don’t care about other vineyards and farms in the area. Many talked about the importance of cultivating good relationships with fellow farmers and unspoken rules that necessitate informing neighbors of major property changes.

One speaker, Mark Wiberg, showed a video featuring photos of the vineyard and surrounding areas before and after the mass oak removal. Audible groans and gasps could be heard from the audience throughout.

Patricia Wilmore of the Paso Robles Wine Country Alliance said the organization, which represents vineyards throughout North County, wanted to be part of crafting an ordinance. Paso Robles Mayor Steve Martin said a tree ordinance in his city has been a “very effective tool.” He said he worried about what would come of Paso Robles’ brand if the trees that have come to represent the area are cut down.

Kim Routh, who farms and ranches in the Adelaida region, said after the meeting that area farmers realize the need to preserve the land for future generations: “It’s our job to protect it.”

“The agriculture community know what’s going on,” Routh said. “(We) want to be a part of the solution.”

No representatives of Justin Vineyards or Wonderful spoke at the meeting.

Reached by email, Wonderful spokesman Mark Carmel said the company plans to plant 5,000 new trees across their properties but did not say where.

Lindsey Holden: 805-781-7939, @lindseyholden27