La Hondans remain skeptical about Clos de la Tech Winery

Half Moon Bay Review
September 10, 2008

La Hondans remain skeptical about Clos de la Tech Winery
Project now in hands of county planning

By Greg Thomas [ [email protected] ]

Controversy surrounding construction of a large “scenic” winery in the hills of La Honda continues to swirl among Coastsiders concerned about the potentially harmful impact of the venture.

Woodside resident and CEO of Cypress Semiconductor Corp. T.J. Rodgers wants to expand production of his Clos de la Tech Winery from its current 2,500 cases per year to 13,000 cases per year. Part of Rodgers’ plan involves extending the 25-acre vineyard to cover a 62-acre chunk of the parcel’s total 166 acres. He is also proposing an amendment to current zoning regulations to create the “Scenic Winery” category, which would apply to wineries located at or above 1,500 feet in elevation.

Rodgers hopes to put himself, his winery and San Mateo County on the map as a “shining star” producer of extraordinary quality pinot noir, according to Rex Geitner, vice president of winegrowing at Clos de la Tech. Geitner said they hope to be able to increase production in time for the 2009 harvest. Three large caves were blasted into a hillside on the property beginning in 2002 to prepare for construction, but before it can continue Rodgers needs permission from the county Planning Commission.

Approximately 50 La Hondans appeared at a Planning Commission hearing on Aug. 27 to voice their concerns. The hearing followed the release of the project’s Environmental Impact Report. Listed in the report were a number of alterations Rodgers would have to make to reduce impacts to “less-than-significant” in areas pertaining to water quality, soil and sedimentation, and erosion.

Despite Rodgers’s cooperation with several mitigation efforts, some La Honda residents are apprehensive about building a large winery on the hill above their town.

“We’re trying to make sure that everyone understands the geography and that protection is built into the permits,” said resident Toby McLeod, who asserts that the proposal is too vague for comfort. “We’d be naïve to trust anyone when our drinking water is at stake.”

To put to rest the water worries of residents, Rodgers has proposed an exchange of 23 acres of land with neighbor Willard Wyman who lives on the other side of the hill. Planting on Wyman’s acreage would redirect drainage out of the Woodham Creek watershed, La Honda’s main water source.

“We’d like to see the land swap,” said David Ehrhardt of Cuesta La Honda Guild, “but there’s still the distinct possibility that there’s a hydrological connection between the water that underlies the Woodham watershed and the water on the other side of the hill. It could actually deplete the supply of water that flows to Woodham.”

“What is the applicant required to do to make up for the lack of water that we might experience?” he asked. “We tend to feel that the fact that it’s kind of a hobby project balanced against the water needs of an entire community needs to be closely considered.”

But Geitner, a 35-year Northern California grape-grower, said that it is in the producers’ best interest not to pollute, erode or suck the wells dry. He insists that concerned parties examine the impact report before jumping to any hasty conclusions.

“All we want is to be evaluated on the facts,” he said. “There are a lot of fears and concerns, but if you look at the Environmental Impact Report, what’s being used is dispassionate science in illuminating the facts.”

Despite the EIR, La Honda residents want to ensure no detail goes overlooked.

“The consensus is that the EIR is inadequate in terms of how it assesses Clos de la Tech and also the cumulative effects of the zoning text amendment,” McLeod said. “It immediately opens the door for wineries. Large wineries at high altitudes could have a big impact in the watersheds.”

“I think a lot of people would not want to see this area become the next Napa or Sonoma,” La Honda resident David Shorr said.

Geitner said that supporting a winery in San Mateo County is far more difficult than supporting one in Napa or Sonoma.

“The acreage in San Mateo County doesn’t exist (to support several large wineries),” he explained. “And the cost is exorbitant. Mark my words, it won’t happen. Just because you build a winery doesn’t mean that someone down the road has to.

“It doesn’t open the door wide open, that isn’t how it works,” he said.

However, that isn’t much consolation to the small-town residents or the environmentalists concerned about the scenery at stake. They assert that the winery would change the nature of the area to one that’s dominated by industry, a far cry from its historical use.

“That’s not what the intent of that area is meant for,” said Brian Schmidt, a legislative advocate for the Committee for Green Foothills. “What people want and expect in this area is natural scenery, (where) the human effect is not the dominant effect. Building a massive winery is not in the community’s interest.”

Schorr said that at the end of the day the larger issue is the county’s outdated permit processes, which fail to account for the impacts of wineries of such magnitude.

“I think it’s important to recognize that the generic, non-specific language (of current agriculture regulations) has been sufficient until now. It’s only recently that we’ve seen an influx of wealthy individuals putting grapes on hillsides and taking advantage of the fact that the exemption doesn’t have any specific language in it.”

Shorr believes the county should take a look at the standards in counties like Napa and Sonoma where agricultural ordinances pertaining to wineries and vineyards are more specific.

The period for public comment on the project ended Friday. The next Planning Commission meeting is scheduled for Sept. 24. However the commission decides to proceed, the significance of the issue to Coastsiders and the potential environmental impact and implications at stake are said to stifle the process.

“My gut instinct is that (in considering) projects of this magnitude, the Planning Commission doesn’t really make a quick decision,” said Mike Shaller, San Mateo County Building and Planning project planner. “I would be surprised if they approved or denied the permit at that first hearing.”

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