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Napa winemaker balks at county demand to replant wildfire-prone trees

The international winemaker also claims Napa County is blocking him from implementing a till-free vineyard plan.

NAPA, Calif. (CN) — A winemaker claims Napa County has ordered him to replant high fire-risk trees on the portions of his vineyard that were burned in the 2020 Glass Fire, and to stop building a new, low-disturbance vineyard in their place.

Jayson Woodbridge, owner of Hundred Acre Wine Group, says in his complaint filed Thursday that he lost more than 80 acres of his 113-acre Calistoga property in the wildfire, which burned for 23 days in fall 2020. A year after the destruction, Woodbridge removed all the burned trees on the property. But he says the county insists he must plant the same high-risk tree species, rather than install an experimental dry-farmed vineyard to reduce erosion and serve as a fire break.

He also claims the county is threatening to penalize him for clearing dead trees from his property and force him to “revegetate” the land.

“The county’s threatened enforcement action is environmentally irresponsible and dangerous,” Woodbridge says in his lawsuit filed in Napa County Superior Court. “It deprives plaintiff of the productive use to which its property is ideally suited, and would increase the risk and spread of future wildfires.”

Woodbridge points out the serious fire hazard presented by trees burned in wildfires, which can fall at any time and may have burned root structures that leave underground voids subject to collapse. He said he cleared trees in full view of other neighbors and did not receive any complaints from them or county enforcement officials at the time.

“Even if the roots of fire-killed trees and stumps are not burned through, they will, over time, decompose, resulting in a complete loss of erosion control assistance," he says in the complaint. "Fire-killed trees and stumps attract wood-boring beetles that, if not controlled, can destroy or imperil nearby trees or even entire forests.”

 Woodbridge also says the county is misusing “conservation regulations” designed to ban environmentally destructive methods like construction, grading and vegetation removal. He claims these regulations do not apply because he did not disturb any soil with a new grapevine installation method, and that the “company did not remove any vegetation; it removed only the dead, charred remains of fire-killed trees and stumps.”

Woodbridge says his experimental vineyard program does not require a permit from the county. The method devised uses bottomless vessels placed on the ground, filled with compost and a grapevine rootstock. This rootstock grows through the compost and roots into the soil without tilling or other soil disturbances.

“The layout of the vineyard involves no ‘earthmoving or earth-disturbing activity’ as that phrase is defined, and would not constitute ‘planting’ as that term is commonly used because the rootstock would not be put or set in the ground, but instead would naturally grow into it,” he says in the complaint.

Woodbridge claims the county has a longstanding pattern of “administrative overreach." He says the Napa County Department of Planning, Building and Environmental Services creates “mountainous red tape and economic hardship” that limit how local farmers can develop more productive vineyards. And he says the county did not give him notice at his property of a “stop work order” as officials claimed on June 13. 

“The county employs delay tactics, requires expensive, onerous and duplicative submissions and reports, with the intention, and the effect, of delaying and avoiding its responsibility to allow legally permitted use of private lands for agricultural purposes, and to deter would-be applicants from pursuing such uses of their land because of the burdensome attorney and expert fees that are necessitated by the county’s practices, and by the highly arbitrary nature of the county’s decision-making process,” he says in his complaint..

Woodbridge seeks a court order declaring that Hundred Acre Wine Group’s actions to clear trees and install a new style of vineyard do not violate any county regulations, that Napa County’s enforcement activities are unlawful and he is allowed to continue any desired tree removal or vineyard landscaping on his property.

The winemaker also owns and operates various other Napa Valley vineyard properties nearby Calistoga and St. Helena, and in Australia’s Barossa Valley. 

Napa County’s county counsel did not respond to requests for comment before deadline.

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