Justin Vineyards to start repair work after cutting down thousands of oaks

A view of the extensive grading and a few of the thousands of oak trees cut down at a Justin Vineyards site west of Paso Robles. The land is owned by a subsidiary of the multinational Wonderful Co., which now says it will pay for restoration of the 380-acre property.
A view of the extensive grading and a few of the thousands of oak trees cut down at a Justin Vineyards site west of Paso Robles. The land is owned by a subsidiary of the multinational Wonderful Co., which now says it will pay for restoration of the 380-acre property. dmiddlecamp@thetribunenews.com

Plans are expected to move forward this week for repairing the North County parcel where Justin Vineyards and Winery ripped out thousands of old stand oaks and caused erosion concerns with steep grading — damage that provoked outrage throughout San Luis Obispo County and beyond.

On Friday, the multinational Wonderful Co., which owns the Justin brand, submitted sedimentation and erosion control plans to county officials, and work is scheduled to begin Tuesday at the 380-acre Sleepy Farm Road property, west of Paso Robles.

San Luis Obispo County on June 9 issued a stop-work order at the site after neighbors complained about the clear-cutting of oak trees and grading for an agricultural pond that Justin received a permit to build. The county later determined that Justin violated the permit by grading on slopes greater than 30 percent.

The Upper Salinas-Las Tablas Resource Conservation District, which issued the pond permit, put out a separate stop-work order, citing three violations, including failing to notify the agency of tree removal ahead of time so surveys for nesting birds could be done.

Art Trinidade, a county code enforcement supervisor, said the immediate work scheduled for this week will protect neighboring properties from any runoff during a sudden storm. The next steps, aimed at preventing further soil erosion, will be done before winter rains and will require another grading permit, he said.

Wonderful Co. spokesman Steven Clark said such plans will “ensure there is no impact to our neighbors or waterways” and that the work will “restore the pond to its natural grade.”

Who gets the land?

Wonderful Co. owners Lynda and Stewart Resnick apologized on June 24 for the tree removal, blaming local Justin employees, and announced they will restore the land and donate it to a conservancy.

The apology and decision to donate the land came after a firestorm of protests with calls for a boycott of Justin wines and a number of local restaurants taking them off their menus. Many residents saw the tree removal as the mark of a Los Angeles-based agribusiness with little regard for small farmers and ranchers.

Kaila Dettman, executive director of the Land Conservancy of San Luis Obispo County said Wonderful Co. representatives have approached the organization to inquire about donating the land to the nonprofit. Dettman said the Land Conservancy, however, typically goes through an intensive process before deciding whether to accept land and remains in internal talks about the proposal.

The organization would need the area’s blessing before deciding to take on the land, Dettman said.

“We want to hear from the community what they think should happen,” she said.

Bill Robeson, deputy director of the county’s planning and building department, said one option could involve the Resnicks retaining ownership of the land, but creating a conservation easement.

Clark, the Wonderful spokesman, said Thursday the company still plans to donate the land but is looking for nonprofit partners and is exploring various options.

Site restoration

The Resnicks intend to pay for the land remediation, Clark said.

Robeson said the Resnicks are in talks with officials regarding the final remediation plans.

He said the code enforcement case remains open so officials can monitor remediation progress, but the county doesn’t plan to fine or take action against the Resnicks unless they refuse to move forward with reparations. The county typically uses fines and other modes of enforcement to bring property owners into compliance with codes, Robeson said. When owners voluntarily comply, no punitive action is taken.

“We’re not like a court system here,” Robeson said.

Robeson said replacing the trees that were clear-cut is a priority, although replanting during the summer may be difficult.

The Resnicks in their announcement said they would be “implementing measures to permanently protect oak woodland from being removed on at least 100 acres of our property; and planting 5,000 new oak trees across our properties.”

The company’s landholding subsidiary owns 18 parcels totaling 1,666 acres in San Luis Obispo County.

Wonderful Co. has not said how many oaks would be planted on the Sleepy Farm Road land to replace the trees that were destroyed. Robeson said he thought many of the 5,000 trees would be planted there.

Devin Best, executive director of the Upper Salinas-Las Tablas Resource Conservation District, said the organization doesn’t have any enforcement authority and relies on the county to take action against violators. Best said he has offered his assistance to both parties and called the donation a “good turning of the leaf” for the Resnicks.

“It’s a good educational opportunity, if nothing else,” Best said.

Neighbors not satisfied

While restoration efforts remain in the planning phases, some residents continue to express their anger with Justin, the Wonderful Co. and the Resnicks. A Facebook group titled “Not So Wonderful” went public Wednesday, along with an accompanying website featuring the Lorax, a character who stands up for trees in an environmentally friendly Dr. Seuss fable.

According to its website, the group plans to “reject any and all of the Resnicks’ development from San Luis Obispo County and the Central Coast through responsible legislation and community strength.”

Nicholas Mattson, the Atascadero resident who created the group and website, said he thought the Resnicks’ apology was “insincere” and sees the donation as “a bit of a payoff.”

“It’s really a throwaway piece of property for them,” Mattson said.

He said he’s concerned about the company’s future plans, especially those related to water. Mattson said he wouldn’t be satisfied unless the Wonderful Co. took its business out of the North County.

“They don’t fit the community we have here,” he said.

Lindsey Holden: 805-781-7939, @lindseyholden27