Malibu Winemakers Sue LA County Over Ban on New Vineyards

Santa Monica Mountains North Area

On June 2, the nonprofit Malibu Coast Vintners and Grape Growers Alliance, along with business owner John Gooden (as an individual), filed a petition in the State of California Superior Court against the LA County Board of Supervisors, challenging an update to the Santa Monica Mountains North Area Coastal Plan that bans new vineyards in the area.

The petition challenges LA County’s May 4, 2021, update to north area plan, which includes the unincorporated areas of the mountains outside the Coastal Zone—an area of about 32 square miles. The plan, which the county says “provides more focused policy for the regulation of development within the Santa Monica Mountains North Area,” was updated so that the land use plans for the north area and the adjacent Santa Monica Mountains Coastal Zone Area were more consistent with each other.

The petition filed by the alliance, which has nearly 40 members—all local vintners and grape growers—claims that the county board of supervisors inserted a “modification” to the proposed update of the 21-year-old plan that would “prohibit new vineyards of any size,” among other changes, also asserting that this change was done after deliberations, environmental review and public comments were over.

When the modification to ban new vineyards was incorporated into the plan and the final document was voted on, on May 4, the item was placed on the consent calendar just a few days before the meeting—allowing it to be approved without discussion. The vintners were livid about being denied the opportunity to make public comments.

The lawsuit claims that, “The outright ban on new vineyards is legally flawed, scientifically unsupportable, and arbitrary and capricious. The county ignored the command of the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) to weigh and evaluate the project’s impacts, singling out and banning vineyards while allowing orchards and row crops.”

Gooden and the alliance are asking for a writ of mandate to stop the enforcement of the ordinance until the vintners believe the county has fulfilled its basic CEQA duty.

For its part, the LA County Department of Regional Planning website stated the change was made in order to standardize land use rules across the mountains.

“With the certification of the Santa Monica Mountains Local Coastal Program in 2015, it has become apparent that comprehensive revisions to the [north area plan]… are needed to ensure that land use regulations and environmental protections are applied consistently and efficiently across these two very similar areas,” the website stated.

In addition, after the 2018 Woolsey Fire, the county was concerned about future ecological health, water quality and the loss of critical animal and plant habitats. The county notes that 38 percent of the north area is national and state public parkland but also includes private lands and “represents a public heritage and trust requiring appropriate protection.”

The 2015 Vineyard Ordinance, spearheaded by LA County District 3 Supervisor Sheila Kuehl, already established a conditional use permit requirement for any new or expanded vineyards in the north area, with rules the petitioners describe as “onerous.”

Petitioners claim that grapevines are “drought-tolerant, requiring far less water than other crops, that vineyards provide fire breaks, and would only take up about two percent of the entire North Area, even if all current applications for expansion were approved. They defend their farming practices as modern and “sustainable,” and cite the revenue from wine tourism that their vineyards bring to the local economy.

The vintners and growers petition expressed concern that LA County would rely on this ordinance “as a pretext to prohibit existing vineyard owners from replanting or rehabilitating vineyards destroyed by natural causes such as the Woolsey Fire.”

The banning of new vineyards in the adjacent Santa Monica Mountains coastal zone has a 20-year  history, and the county wants the coastal zone and the north area of the mountains to have the same basic land use regulations because they’re adjacent and geographically similar.

Former county supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky explained in 2014 that, with rare exceptions, it’s the California Coastal Commission—not the county—that has prohibited new vineyards since the early 2000s based on an informal rule known as the Dixon Memo, which declares all of the Santa Monica Mountains an Environmentally Sensitive Habitat Area (commonly known by its acronym, ESHA).

In 2014, the commission upheld the outright ban on new vineyards in the mountain coastal zone, citing pesticide use, scarcity of water for irrigation and soil erosion into streams. A number of speakers came specifically to decry the proliferation of vineyards in the area.

Yaroslavsky said at the time, during an April 2014 commission meeting in Santa Barbara, that “vineyards are beautiful in the right location, but here they create a moonscape with erosion and loss of habitat … We’ve had health issues, pesticide issues, water issues. Vines suck up all the water.”

The former supervisor added, “The effects are devastating, and we should not stand idly by waiting for this problem to spin out of control, and it will spin out of control if we don’t do something about it now.”