Malibu Vineyards Restricted Amid Drought Concerns

Santa Monica Mountains

Bordeaux, Napa, Malibu? 

Applications for new vineyards in the Malibu area skyrocketed in number this year, causing L.A. Supervisors to tap the brakes on the permitting process. Area stakeholders contend that they are being punished for following the advice of other L.A. County officials.

When L.A. County saw a sharp uptick in applications for new vineyards in the north Santa Monica Mountains area in the past year during the fourth year of a statewide mega-drought, they feared for the future of the region, primarily due to a perceived increase in water use.

Applications had increased from about three in the previous year to about 50 in the last year.

That’s why in June, Supervisors enacted an emergency ordinance, freezing applications for new vineyards in the area.

“In this unprecedented era, the development of dozens of vineyards — most using wells to draw upon groundwater supplies — should be carefully considered,” the motion, introduced by Third District Supervisor Sheila Kuehl, reads.

On Tuesday, Supervisors voted to extend the ordinance four months, but unfreeze applications for vineyards that had already been submitted.

Residents of the area, though, claim that the increase only occurred because L.A. planners suggested they would soon lose the right to plant vineyards on their agriculturally zoned land. According to Malibu Coast Vintners & Wine Growers Alliance President John Gooden, these applications were spurred directly by a 2014 meeting between L.A. County planners and members of the Triunfo Lobo Community Association (TLCA).

“The county planning department told the homeowners if they had any interest in developing their property with vineyards, they would have to submit applications sooner rather than later,” Gooden told The Malibu Times.

Michael Frawley, the president of the TLCA and himself not associated with the wine industry, was present at the 2014 meeting and backed up Gooden’s account.

“Some people felt like, ‘gosh, I’ve got to act now, I’ve got to get my plans in,’” Frawley explained, describing the sharp rise in vineyard applications.

According to Frawley’s account, planners had come to a meeting to describe two future pieces of legislation: one making a new Significant Ecological Area ordinance for the north Santa Monica Mountains and the other making a new grading map for the general plan. These could have made future vineyard applications more difficult.

Frawley contended that planners should have anticipated the increase.

“These people are experienced,” Frawley said. “I think if they go out and tell people, ‘right now you have this ability and in the future you’ll be limited,’ I think they know people hearing that are going to want to go out and do it.”

According to Gooden, the transition between former longtime Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky and new Supervisor Sheila Kuehl may have caused the issue, since the planners who were at the meeting are no longer with the county.

Gooden also complained that the county was not limiting other agricultural uses, such as less drought-tolerant avocados, citrus or equestrian uses. Kuehl addressed this concern during Tuesday’s meeting.

“I did not have applications in the Malibu area for 28 new avocado groves,” Kuehl said. “This was an unprecedented number of applications, and it was all for vineyards.”

The decision, passed by Supervisors Tuesday, gives seven new restrictions for the 28 vineyard applications that were just unfrozen and will now be processed by the county.

The first of these is a stipulation that water must be provided by a municipal water district, rather than a well.

“When you draw water, great or small, you’re drawing from a flowing stream that is also someone else’s,” Kuehl said.

Other restrictions include no planting on slopes of 50 percent or greater, pest management plan must be approved by the Department of Public Health, an erosion plan must be approved by the Department of Public Works and all vineyard planting must only use drip irrigation.