Law affecting Wine Country prompts lawsuit against county

Press Enterprise by Jeff Horseman, May 14, 2011

A group representing Temecula Valley Wine Country landowners has sued Riverside County, alleging a recently passed ordinance threatens the region's rural ambiance.

Protect Wine Country filed the suit May 6 in Riverside County Superior Court. The suit describes the plaintiffs as an informal group who live and own land in the agricultural areas of the county and Temecula.

The county Board of Supervisors is set to discuss the suit behind closed doors Tuesday. The county's administrative offices were closed Friday.

The suit concerns an ordinance the board passed in November. According to the suit, the ordinance allows the county planning director to approve uses not allowed in a particular zone if those uses are essentially the same as the permitted ones.

The plaintiffs are concerned that the ordinance gives the planning director more discretion to approve projects that normally would not be allowed in places like wine country, which they believe could potentially ruin its ambiance.

The ordinance has an unjustified exemption from scrutiny under the California Environmental Quality Act, the suit alleges, adding the new law could allow uses that run contrary to county rules protecting Wine Country agriculture.

The county also failed to hold a public hearing on the ordinance, the suit alleges. It asks the court to nullify the ordinance and require the county to follow state environmental rules should supervisors take up the ordinance again.

Protect Wine Country attorney Ray Johnson is a Temecula-area environmental attorney known for his opposition to the proposed Liberty Quarry project. He also represented a citizens' group that successfully sought a revised environmental study for what would be Temecula's first hospital.

Johnson said Protect Wine Country is concerned about what the ordinance could do to a region known for vineyards, wineries and a generally rural atmosphere.

Calvary Chapel Bible Fellowship's expansion plans and the addition of sports fields to the Galway Downs equestrian center are examples of potentially incompatible uses in Wine Country, he said. He added those projects could leave less traffic capacity for wine-making uses on Rancho California Road, Wine Country's main thoroughfare.

The suit comes as the county works on a master plan for Wine Country. As it's written now, the Wine Country Community Plan would merge the region with the neighboring Valle de los Caballos area and create separate zones for residents, wineries and equestrian ventures.

The plan is meant to balance residents' interests with the desire to turn Wine Country into a world-class wine region. Critics worry the draft plan could lead to too many wineries or repressive restrictions.