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Sebastopol citizens group sues county, winemaker

A citizens group is suing Sebastopol winemaker Paul Hobbs and Sonoma County over a 48-acre vineyard conversion project it says was approved in violation of state environmental laws.

Watertrough Children's Alliance alleges in court papers filed Monday that Agricultural Commissioner Tony Linegar erred in issuing a permit June 5 when the project should have undergone a full California Environmental Quality Act review.

The group said the conversion of a former apple orchard could pose significant impacts to wildlife and water quality and may expose children at five nearby schools to harmful pesticides.

The suit seeks an injunction to halt the conversion until a review is conducted and any potential problems associated with it are resolved.

“Our contention is the county's interpretation of its own statute runs afoul of CEQA,” said Paul V. Carroll, an attorney for the Watertrough group.

Deputy County Counsel Jeff Brax said Hobbs was issued an over-the-counter permit under the county's Vineyard Control and Soil Erosion ordinance. Vineyard development is exempt from state environmental review, Brax said.

“It's a ministerial permit, not subject to CEQA,” Brax said.

Paul Hobbs' spokesman Christopher O'Gorman said in a written statement the winemaker met all requirements. He vowed to “aggressively fight” the lawsuit he said threatens to undo established vineyard regulations in place for a decade.

O'Gorman said a similar vineyard conversion challenge was overruled by a Sonoma County judge in 2011.

“Ultimately, Paul Hobbs wants what is best for the grape-growing industry, the environment and its resident neighbors,” O'Gorman said.

Hobbs bought the property last year as part of continued expansion of its west county holdings near Watertrough Road

Earlier this year, parents at Apple Blossom school complained about dust when the winemaker began uprooting trees and clearing the land. The county ordered Hobbs to halt the project this summer when blackberry brambles and bay laurel were cleared from protected areas above a creek.

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