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Justin Vineyards criticized for clear-cutting oaks 

Oak Tree removal by Justin Winery

At left is a 2015 image from Google Maps of westside property at 750 Sleepy Farm Road, Paso Robles. At right is the same property photographed by local winermaker Matt Trevison from a plane a few weeks ago.

‘This is not the Paso Roblan spirit,’ neighbor says after flyover

–Neighbors in the Willow Creek Road area in westside Paso Robles this week raised concerns over the removal of oak trees on property owned by Justin Vineyards and Winery. The company has clear-cut hundreds of oak trees, according to complaints. The site is planned to be used for an irrigation pond filled with well water and vineyards, according to documents from the San Luis Obispo County Planning Department.

Justin Winery

This parcel, identified by county planners, is the site of recent oak tree removal.

“I was just flying around when I came across the pond and destruction,” said Matt Trevisan, the owner and winemaker at Linne Calodo. “I did not remember what the land looked like until I matched up the Google Earth photo.” Trevisan said after comparing the photos, it was clear to him the winery was clearing a significant amount of land.

“When I look at this project and see the social and ecological ramifications, I become sick to my stomach,” said Trevisan. “There is more than an abundant amount of land that was deforested decades ago for the purpose of farming. For a heavily-capitalized company to ignore the open farm land and deforest in the name of needing additional farm land is just pathetic. The massive deforestation is mind-blowing and reminds me of something that a James Bond Villain would do. Secondly, the sheer audacity to build a 20 acre foot pond (6.5 million gallons) within a community of tiny domestic wells is purely disrespectful and lacks consciousness. This is not the Paso Roblan spirit and these suckers need to leave town.” Trevison said he worked for Justin Winery 21 years ago as an apprentice.

Neighbor Justin Smith, winemaker at Saxum Vineyards, said, “I don’t know who to hold directly responsible for this disgraceful destruction in the name of farming, whether it’s the Resnicks themselves, their president David Ricanati, or the vineyard developer, but they should be tarred and feathered and run out of our town,” he said. Lynda and Stewart Resnick bought Justin Vineyards and Winery from Justin Baldwin in 2010. The winery is part of The Wonderful Company, formerly Roll Global, which owns Fiji Water, POM Wonderful, Wonderful Almonds, Wonderful Pistachios and Teleflora. The Resnicks are worth an estimated 4.2 billion, according to Forbes ranking of the 400 richest people in the world.

“Our oaks and oak forests are what makes this area beautiful and wild,” Smith said. “There are no laws in our county protecting them, but there were none needed. Nobody who loved or lived in Paso would dare clear cut the forests. That is until Justin Winery/Fiji Water moved in. They’ve bought multiple properties, thousands of acres.” Smith was named 2013 wine industry person of the year by the Paso Robles Wine Alliance and was awarded Wine Spectator’s 2010 Wine of the Year.

Neighbor Mark Adams of Ledge Vineyards said, “This is a legislative and ecological emergency. The photos speak for themselves. Logic should guide our behavior, not laws, but outsider greed is spoiling the heritage of generations of respectful locals. Unfortunately we now have to babysit the community to save our farms and our homes.”

Justin Vineyards says work is legal and promises to plant 5,000 oak trees

The Wonderful Company Vice President of Corporate Communications Steven Clark responded to inquires Thursday afternoon with a statement on the company’s behalf.

“We are currently preparing a parcel of our land for new vineyards in full compliance with all state and county regulatory guidelines,” Clark said. “We recognize the beauty and importance of our natural resources, and as part of this process, beginning this fall and throughout 2017, we will be planting 5,000 oak trees across our properties. As a leading employer in the area and major contributor to the local economy, Justin Vineyards & Winery is proud of both its long-standing commitment to the Paso Robles community and responsible environmental stewardship.”

Those trucks full of oak logs have been leaving there 5 loads a day for the last month. It's heartbreaking.

“Those trucks full of oak logs have been leaving there 5 loads a day for the last month,” said winemaker Justin Smith. “It’s heartbreaking.” Smith recently posted this photo to Facebook.

Complaints taken to county supervisor, county code enforcement halts work

Supervisor Frank Mecham

Supervisor Frank Mecham

Concerned neighbors and vineyard owners met Thursday with San Luis Obispo County Supervisor Frank Mecham. Mecham asked county code enforcement to check into the project’s compliance after the neighbors came to him with complaints.

San Luis Obispo County Code Enforcement visited the 375-acre property this week, located at 750 Sleepy Farm Road, and issued a stop-work order on the project because of grading violations, according to San Luis Obispo County Planning and Building Department Director James A. Bergman.

Mecham says other wineries have removed oak trees, but it is not necessarily common practice. “I’m always concerned about water,” said Mecham, noting that the project may have an effect on drainage and groundwater.

In an application to the county, Justin Vineyards and Winery, through holding company Estate Vineyards, LLC, said a new reservoir planned at the site will have a capacity of 20-21 acre-feet. “The exact size will be determined once the site survey is completed (currently in progress). The reservoir will be designed to conform to natural topography (rolling terrain) with no impact to native trees anthe environment,” said civil engineer Eric J. Gobler in the application. In additional information provided by Gobler for the review, the report said, “We are not planning on ‘capturing’ storm water as there are divergence around the pond. We will be filling the pond using the wells on the ranch. The plan is to fill the pond in the winter time and ‘store’ the water until we need it in late summer.” The property was previously the home of Dancing Star Foundation, an organization that rehabilitated rescued animals.

New county ordinance proposed to protect oak trees

Removing oak trees is currently not illegal in the county. In the city limits of Paso Robles, city council approval is needed to remove even a single oak tree. Supervisor Mecham said he has directed his staff to prepare a suitable ordinance to help prevent deforestation in the future, but similar ordinances have been defeated due to pressure from agricultural companies, he said.

“I think there is a change in mindset now,” said Mecham, “People want to be good stewards of the land.” Mecham said that the next steps would be mobilizing the agricultural community to support such an ordinance.