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Vineyard conversion at Twin Hills District in the works

Posted: Wednesday, May 1, 2013 3:02 pm

by David Abbott Sonoma West Editorabbott@sonomawest.com | 0 comments

THUSD parents up in arms about proposal

Orchard View School may have to change its name soon, as the 40-acre apple orchard surrounding the Twin Hills Union School District (THUSD) campus is in the process of becoming a vineyard.

News of the conversion, prompted by the demolition of the buildings on the Watertrough Road property, has caused a stir among school parents, leading to an online petition to try to stop the project.


“There’s a firestorm brewing,” Christine Dzilvelis said. “There are 1,000 school kids here and the orchard borders three schools. ... People hate it. It’s fraught with problems and they’re trying to push it through hard and fast.”


The THUSD campus area includes Apple Blossom School, Tree House Hollow Pre-school, Orchard View School and SunRidge Charter School.


Dzilvelis has a daughter attending Orchard View and is spearheading the drive to keep the grapes out. To that end, she has joined with a group of parents to create an online petition, which has garnered nearly 200 signatures as of Wednesday.


The petition, titled “Stop corporate alcohol firms from endangering children and the environment,” has a signature goal of 5,000.


Dzilvelis said that parents have been surprised by the turn of events, but representatives from Paul Hobbs Winery, which purchased the property in late 2012, say that they have done everything they can to let the community know the change is happening.


“When we went into escrow, we reached out to Twin Hills superintendent Barbara Bickford and said, ‘Hey, we’re going to be doing this and want to be good neighbors,’” Hobbs’ Marketing and Public Relations Manager Tara Sharp said. “We’ve been up front and honest. This is not a covert action.”


Sharp added that part of the outreach included going from house to house with blackberry pies purchased from Kozlowski Farms to let neighbors know and to introduce themselves.


But apparently nobody really noticed until the buildings came down.


“We first learned about it a few months ago,” THUSD Superintendent Barbara Bickford said. “As far as the district is concerned, we are aware of the concerns of our parents. … We’re confident our schools will continue to be safe and healthy.”


The plan is to convert 30 acres of the 40-acre parcel to winegrapes, leaving 10 acres as they are, although the final layout is not yet complete.


Additionally, Hobbs will build a new fence with an “espalier” of apple trees and there will be a 30-foot buffer zone between the fence and the grapes. He also plans to spend more than $100,000 rehabilitating the soil on the property that has been abandoned for at least a year, although spraying continues.


With the removal of the buildings, Hobbs removed large amounts of asbestos and lead.


Hobbs has also offered to reach out with educational opportunities for students and to move some of the mature trees to the campus if the school district is interested.


But parents are skeptical of Hobbs’ intentions, as the local vintner has had some high-profile dustups over vineyard conversions in other parts of the West County.


His long-running issues with former neighbor John Jenkel led to the conversion of Jenkel’s Graton property into vineyards and in October 2011, Hobbs cleared Davis Christmas Tree Farm in Graton, leading to a public castigation from 5th District Supervisor Efren Carrillo.


According to Carrillo’s  District Director Susan Upchurch, his office has fielded dozens of calls from concerned parents and his staff has confirmed that proper permits are in order. The permits involved in the crop conversion are ministerial, not discretionary, and fall under the auspices of the Agricultural Commissioner.


According to the Ag Commissioners office, as long as the vineyard application conforms to the county’s Vineyard and Orchard Site Development Ordinance (VESCO) standards, the project will be allowed to go forward.


“They’ve submitted the original plan but we sent it back and asked for modifications. The second set is being studied,” Ag Commissioner Tony Linegar said. “It’s a ministerial process, so as long as they meet VESCO standards … they don’t need to go through a CEQA process.”


The ministerial process allows “permitted use” approved or denied based on compliance with “fixed, measurable standards” (VESCO).


“It’s like: here’s a box. If it fits into the box, it’s a go,” Linegar said.


Linegar said that the conversion from apples to grapes may actually lessen the use of pesticides and other chemicals and may also reduce water use and the chances for erosion.


“The types of equipment used for apple trees tosses (pesticides) into the air,” he said. “The types of pesticides used for the coddling moth — the worms you find in an apple — are more toxic than what’s used on vineyards.”


In May 1998, an apple orchard in the area was fined for the “drift” of pesticides that found their way to Apple Blossom School. County officials found diazinon residue on the outside of the school.


Reports in Sonoma West at the time stated that the orchard in question belonged to George Menini, although a document from the Ag Commissioners’ office reports a fine of $400 to Gilbert Perez of Pleasant Hill Ranch at 1411 Pleasant Hill Rd., nearly one mile from the site.


But Linegar said that will not likely be an issue with a vineyard.


“Hobbs will be using wettable sulfur and Roundup. The way those are used is not prone to drift,” he said. “There won’t be dusting or use of pesticides when school is in session. ... He understands the relationship with apples and is going out of his way to work with the community.”


THUSD Trustee Maben Rainwater wants assurances that Hobbs is actually going to follow through with the promises he is proposing though.


“As a parent and trustee, we need to have a very good idea of the implications of what the farming practices are going to be,” Rainwater said. “They say it’s going to be 90 percent organic. It’s one thing for them to say that. We need to make sure this isn’t hearsay.”


He also wants to be sure that water issues will be addressed and that Hobbs will not use chemicals to kill off the trees.


But Sharp said concerns about overuse of chemicals are unfounded, as Hobbs wants to grow the best grapes possible to make excellent wines.


“We farm sustainably because it’s the best thing for the environment and the grapes,” she said. “Our goal is to grow the best grapes and you can’t do that with heavy chemical use.”


A group of concerned parents will be meeting with Linegar on Wednesday (after press time) to air concerns and try to stop the project.


“So many people are suspicious of wine grapes and Paul Hobbs,” Dzilvelis said. “My daughter loves (the orchard). ... There are birds in the spring and quail. It’s a very peaceful and pretty place. There are big concerns with drift and water issues and it seems like it’s on track.”




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