County Votes to Regulate Vineyards

Santa Monica Mountains

On Tuesday, Nov. 17, the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors passed an ordinance with a 3-2 vote that will regulate vineyards in the 21,000-acre Santa Monica Mountains North Area Community Standards District for the first time. All new or expanding vineyards in that unincorporated area will have new permit requirements, and all vineyards (including existing vineyards) will need to comply with a set of standards.

The new ordinance defines a vineyard as being at least 4,356 sq. ft., growing table or wine grapes. It limits new vineyards to two acres per parcel, doesn’t allow development on slopes greater than 33 percent and doesn’t allow planting on ridgelines. Part of the permitting process will include a detailed analysis of water sources and usage.

In addition, new and current vineyards will be required to follow a list of “best management practices” designed to protect habitat, allow for wildlife passage and protect views. These include natural pest control, drip irrigation, various measures to prevent erosion and runoff, and a site-specific environmental assessment.

District 3 Supervisor Sheila Kuehl, who represents the North Area as well as Malibu, said at the meeting, “My constituents have disparate interests, but I believe this is a good compromise.” She specified several modifications to the wording of the ordinance before its finalization: “apply standards to all vineyards, regardless of size, require a setback from sensitive habitat by an additional 100 feet, and all fencing must be wildlife permeable and solely for safety purposes, and no more than six feet tall.”

By “disparate interests” Kuehl was referring to the two very vocal sides on this issue —residents and environmentalists who have often witnessed the practices of existing vintners in their neighborhoods, and are angered by what they have seen, versus landowners and vintners who claim to be good stewards of the land and want to preserve property rights.

Of the two dozen citizens making public comments just prior to the board’s vote, approximately 19 were in favor of the ordinance and five were against it. Those in favor of regulations for vineyards represented the California Native Plant Society, Heal the Bay, Poison Free Malibu and various homeowners associations.

Many in favor of the ordinance didn’t think it went far enough, and wanted a complete ban on new vineyards similar to the Local Coastal Plan for the coastal portion of the Santa Monica Mountains that was passed by supervisors last year. The new ordinance for the north (non-coastal) area of the mountains has different regulations concerning vineyards than the coastal areas, although the two are next to each other.

Those opposed to the regulation of vineyards included Realtors, vintners and property owners. One vintner defended himself by saying, “We’re organic, we don’t spray pesticides, we don’t use razor wire and we have never done any grading.”

Richard Bruckner, director of regional planning, defended the fact that new vineyards could still be approved under this ordinance. “It’s not a ban, but it is a careful regulation,” he said.

Much of the affected land is mountainous, with canyons, hills, streams and woodlands that remain undeveloped —just like the National and State Parks, Mountains Restoration Trust and Conservancy lands next to it. Because the area has so much ecological importance in terms of plant and animal species, not to mention unspoiled scenic views, the county became somewhat alarmed when it experienced a large spike in vineyard applications from north area property owners last year.

Beginning in May 2014, the county received 44 applications to establish vineyards compared to a previous average of about three applications a year. “This influx of applications, especially on undeveloped and steeply sloped parcels, raised concerns related to the potential impacts on natural resources,” the planning department stated in a letter to the County Board of Supervisors.

The planning department pointed out potential problems if 44 applications were approved at once, including habitat loss and fragmentation, water quality, scenic views, the clearing of native vegetation, displacement of wildlife, change in soil chemistry, erosion, fencing and groundwater.

Since no development standards or restrictions on vineyard development existed for that area (vineyards were considered a “crop” use), the board acted by voting for an interim ordinance on June 15 to temporarily halt any new or expanded vineyards until a zoning amendment study could be completed. On July 28, they extended the ordinance for four months and allowed 28 pending applications to move forward, providing they met a list of requirements.

The draft ordinance can be found here.