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Malibu Coast AVA growers fight on over planting ban

California's Malibu Coast AVA has just turned one year old but growers continue to face battles over the right to plant new vineyards. Could it be a case of the 'terrible twos'? Christy Canterbury MW reports.

Malibu Coast growers recently secured a deal at Los Angeles County offices that vineyard applications would at least be dealt with on a case-by-case and must meet strict conditions, rather than be banned outright.

Around half of pending applications were approved to proceed and a proposed 10 month extension to the ban was reduced to four months.

It represents a partial victory for growers. Vintners were hit with a ban on new plantings just six weeks after the birth of the Malibu Coast AVA in mid-2014, after surviving the plodding, three-year process for approval. It was quite a shock.

Most recently, Los Angeles County had wanted to extend the ban for 10 months to study the effects of vine planting in the Santa Monica Mountains. Water usage, soil erosion and natural habitat topped the list of concerns, as was the seemingly odd possibility of ruining views.

A lobbying campaign ensued. John Gooden and Dan Fredman, president and public relations head respectively for the Malibu Coast Vintners and Grape Growers Alliance, developed an education plan for the county Supervisors based water usage and erosion control.

They met many times with various supervisors during June and July to educate them on grapevine physiology, sustainable farming methodology and vineyard and winery economics.

And, unlike last year, this time they were rather successful. After all, grapevines need precious little water, especially when drip irrigated, and vines’ roots prevent erosion by anchoring the soil.

Education wasn’t the only key. An online petition to oppose the vote gathered 718 signatures, and there was also coverage in local newspapers.

Unexpectedly, county supervisor Sheila Kuehl presented a compromise that was unanimously approved. Restrictions apply but are de minimis. Water applied to vineyards must come from municipal supplies rather than wells and can only be applied via drip irrigation. New plantings must have pre-approved erosion control plans, and no planting is allowed on 50% or greater gradients.

After the meeting, Fredman said that no one in the AVA can recall anyone contouring hills for planting, because there is simply no need. Furthermore, flood irrigation is impossible due to the slopes, as well as the local water shortage, and who would use lawn sprinklers anyway?

Fredman said undeveloped property might have been the real seed of the controversy. It is believed speculative developers requested permits in order to make their lots more attractive to potential buyers. Approvals were granted for 28 of the 51 pending permits.

For now, the almost 200-year-old tradition of vineyards in the Santa Monica Mountains will continue, and should grow. Environmental studies will be brought back to supervisors toward the end of 2015.

Edited by Chris Mercer

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