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Malibu Winemakers Sue LA County Over Ban On New Vineyards In The Santa Monica Mountains

An image of purple grapes hang from a grapevine in a vineyard
Grapes hang from a grapevine.
(Peter Schad/Unsplash)
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A coalition of winemakers is suing Los Angeles County and its Board of Supervisors over a ban on new vineyards in the Santa Monica Mountains.

The lawsuit was filed in L.A. Superior Court last week by the Malibu Coast Vintners and Grape Growers Alliance Inc. and John Gooden, the president of Montage Vineyards.

On May 4, the Board of Supes updated the Santa Monica Mountains North Area Plan. It also adopted a zoning ordinance that prohibits new vineyards in the Santa Monica Mountains and doesn't clarify whether wineries can expand existing vineyards.

For Malibu vintners, this is a long-running battle. In 2015, they unsuccessfully fought a decision by the L.A. County Board of Supervisors to revise the California Coastal Commission's Land Use Plan for the area.

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This time around, vintners are complaining that the original draft of the ordinance maintained 2015's regulations, which allowed them to expand their vineyards and plant new ones if they secured a conditional use permit. The final version of the ordinance forbids the former and is silent on the latter.

"The outright ban on new vineyards is legally flawed, scientifically unsupportable and arbitrary and capricious," the lawsuit states.

Vineyards in Malibu on April 19, 2017.
AFP via Getty Images)

The plaintiffs are asking the courts to set aside the ordinance behind the ban and set up public hearings. They also want a judge to order the county to bring its action into full compliance with the California Environmental Quality Act, which generally requires requires state and local government agencies to inform decision makers and the public about the potential environmental impacts of proposed projects.

The lawsuit asserts that the Board of Supervisors ignored CEQA by not fully considering the ordinance's impacts and by not giving the public an opportunity to weigh in on it.

"The county did not perform any environmental review of an outright ban on vineyards because the prohibition was added... after the administrative proceedings had already concluded," the petition states.

A Malibu vineyard on April 19, 2017.
AFP via Getty Images)

The wineries impacted by this decision are all located in the Malibu Coast AVA, which was approved in 2014 and is one of 139 American Viticulture Areas in California. Running along the Pacific coast from Point Mugu and Camarillo out to Thousand Oaks and down to Topanga, it is 46 miles long and eight miles wide, covering portions of both Los Angeles and Ventura counties.

While it's not as famous as Sonoma or Napa, the Malibu Coast AVA is home to more than 50 growers and winemakers. The largest is Saddlerock Ranch, which has 100 acres of vines, according to its website, and is owned by the Semler family. As with many wineries in Malibu, Saddlerock's grapes are largely planted on steep, terraced hillsides. The most commonly planted varietals in L.A. County are Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah, Zinfandel, Merlot and Chardonnay, according to a 2015 survey by the National Agricultural Statistics Service.

Many of these wineries were devastated by the Woolsey Fire, which burned through nearly 100,000 acres in November 2018.

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Richard Hirsh of Cielo Farms was lucky during that fire, but toldWine Enthusiast, "90% of the homes up here are gone."

In 2018, Jim Palmer of Malibu Vineyards toldWine Enthusiast,"A friend who's a fireman sent me a picture of what’s left of my house and vineyard, and everything's just ash, totally leveled."