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Justin Vineyards owners to donate 380-acre site where oaks were cut down

A pile of just some of the oak trees that were clear cut at a Justin Vineyards property west of Paso Robles. The county issued a stop work order after complaints by neighbors. The land, owned by a subsidiary of the multinational Wonderful Co.
A pile of just some of the oak trees that were clear cut at a Justin Vineyards property west of Paso Robles. The county issued a stop work order after complaints by neighbors. The land, owned by a subsidiary of the multinational Wonderful Co. dmiddlecamp@thetribunenews.com

Justin Vineyards and Winery on Friday announced it will donate the 380-acre North County parcel that was recently the site of a controversial mass oak removal to a land conservancy.

Lynda and Stewart Resnick, who own the land and the Justin brand as heads of the multinational Wonderful Company, said in a statement they are “ashamed and are sorry” for being “asleep at the wheel.”

The Resnicks plan to give the property at 750 Sleepy Farm Road in west Paso Robles to an undetermined local nonprofit. In addition, they said they will restore the land to its natural contours by undoing extensive grading, halt the construction of an agricultural reservoir that would have been filled by pumping in 6 million gallons of groundwater, and are “looking for other conservation opportunities in the greater Adelaida area.”

The couple also said they would be “implementing measures to permanently protect oak woodlands from being removed on at least 100 acres of our property” and planting 5,000 new oaks across their properties, although they haven’t said where the new trees would be located.

Wonderful Co. spokesman Mark Carmel said, “the oaks on our remaining acres will remain untouched.” Wonderful’s landholding company, Estate Vineyards LLC, owns 1,666 acres on 18 parcels in San Luis Obispo County.

The announcement came more than two weeks after angry Paso Robles neighbors complained that thousands of oak trees were destroyed and grading work for the pond denuded hillsides and threatened to cause erosion problems on adjacent properties.

The uproar prompted San Luis Obispo County to investigate, issuing a stop-work order to prevent any more clearing or grading. The Upper Salinas-Las Tablas Resource Conservation District issued a separate stop-work order, citing three violations, including failing to notify the agency of tree removal ahead of time so surveys of nesting birds could be done.

Outraged residents launched a boycott of Justin wines and some restaurants stopped serving the company’s products.

Dozens of residents, farmers and environmentalists spoke against Justin at Tuesday’s San Luis Obispo County Board of Supervisors meeting and presented a petition calling for an ordinance to prevent similar destruction from occurring again. Supervisors directed staff to prepare an oak protection ordinance for unincorporated areas that will be considered at a July 15 special meeting.

Residents’ anger stems in part from Wonderful Co.’s status as a multibillion-dollar company — it took in $3.8 billion in revenue in 2014, according to Forbes — that’s insensitive to community values. The Los Angeles-based business owns the brands Fiji Water, Justin Wines, Landmark Wines, Pom Wonderful, Wonderful Almonds, Wonderful Pistachios, Wonderful Halos, Wonderful Sweet Scarletts, Suterra pest control and Teleflora floral delivery.

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

In their announcement, the Resnicks blamed their “local team” at Justin Vineyards and Winery for the “terrible situation at our Sleepy Farm Road property, not to mention our poor reputation within the community.” Carmel, the Wonderful spokesman, said no local employees had lost their jobs, but the parent company is “conducting an internal review.”

Jim Bergman, San Luis Obispo County planning and building director, said the county would accept the land donation and remediation in lieu of potential code enforcement actions. The county estimates thousands of trees were removed on the Justin site, Bergman said.

The county is already working with Justin to address potential erosion and runoff issues caused by any grading violations, Bergman said. The company will need additional permits to begin remediation, and Bergman said county officials will work with Justin to quickly develop and implement plans.

“The Planning and Building Department is pleased to see fruitful results from our discussions this week with the representatives of the Sleepy Farm Road property,” Bergman said in an emailed statement. “The strong input from the citizens of the North County and the reaction by the Board of Supervisors in making the first moves to discuss the protection of oak trees were instrumental in our discussions with the property owners.

“Although it will take much time for the property to fully recover, the Planning and Building Department believes that this proposal provides maximum enforcement of the county's land use ordinance, plus many more benefits to support the wise use of land in the county.”

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

Supervisor Frank Mecham, who represents the North County, said the board still intends to consider an oak protection ordinance, although he called the Resnicks’ actions “a pretty big step.”

“You can’t put something back,” Mecham said. “This is the best we can get out of this, based on what’s happened.”

Mecham said he knew many residents wouldn’t be satisfied by the Resnicks’ plans, but he said they would perhaps serve as a comfort to farmers with land near the Justin site: “I’m hoping this brings a little peace to their minds.”

Neil Heaton, who dry-farms grapes and walnuts on 85 acres next to the Justin property, had expressed deep distress about the impact tree removal, grading and additional water use would have on his land and the environment. He said the Resnicks’ decision to give up the property is “really an answer to prayer.”

Heaton said he hoped the land would be donated to Cal Poly, so students could learn about sustainable growing practices and the impact of watershed destruction. He said he’d also like to see students study the area’s underground aquifer.

“I think it goes a long way in mending the fences that have been torn down,” Heaton said.

Lindsey Holden: 805-781-7939, @lindseyholden27

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