Resnicks’ deforestation ignites battle
June 15, 2016
By KAREN VELIE
In the rolling hills that surround northern San Luis Obispo County communities, some farmers have planted grapes among the oaks. Locally, there has been an emphasis on stewardship of the land and protecting the oaks.
Almost 20 years ago, amid concerns sparked when the owners of Kendall Jackson winery bulldozed 843 oaks to create a vineyard in Santa Barbara County, the San Luis Obispo County Board of Supervisors discussed enacting an oak tree ordinance. However, a group of local farmers argued against the ordinance because they thought it would be onerous and in the past farmers had avoided clear cutting large swatches of oak trees.
But now, a group of farmers and San Luis Obispo County Supervisor Debbie Arnold say it is time to reconsider adopting an oak tree ordinance.
Prompted by the cutting of thousands of oak trees along with plans to create a 20-acre-foot agricultural reservoir that will drain millions of gallons of water out of the ground during a time of drought, many North County farmers no longer believe we can trust local property owners to self-regulate.
“This is the third property they have deforested,” said Matt Trevisan, with Linne Calodo Winery. “It is thousands of trees not hundreds. There is a bully in our county and they need to leave.”
Justin Vineyards and Winery, a company owned by Stewart and Lynda Resnick, violated a county code when it failed to get the permit required to grade on slopes in excess of 30 percent. Their company did submit a permit application for the construction of the water storage pond. However, the permit application stated no trees would be removed as a result of constructing the pond.
County staff responded to the violations with a stop work order.
“I am committed to providing more protection for our beautiful, native oaks,” Arnold said. “It is unfortunate we have to enact expensive and onerous regulation because not all landowners respect this amazing resource.”
Arnold said she contacted county Administrator Dan Buckshi and asked him to begin the process of bringing an oak tree ordinance proposal to the Board of Supervisors.
Following the clear cutting of oaks by Kendall Jackson winery, Santa Barbara County enacted an oak tree ordinance. That ordinance exempts oaks that are dead, within 50 feet of a home or are deemed dangerous. Property owners are then limited from removing more than a set amount of non-exempt oaks per acre, such as no more than 11 oak trees from a property between 800 to 899 acres.
“My goal is to bring forward an ordinance that includes common sense exemptions,” Arnold said. “I feel we need protection from this kind of abuse.”
While many bemoan the loss of our county’s forested lands, Resnicks neighbors fear the Resnicks will drain underground water sources to fill their reservoir, leaving their neighbors without the vital resource. And while several supporters of the failed Paso Robles water district claim its passage would have stopped the deforestation, the land Resnick recently deforested is outside the Paso Robles Basin’s boundaries.
Who are Stewart and Lynda Resnick?
The Resnicks own, among numerous other entities, POM Wonderful, Fiji Water, Roll Global, Paramount Farms International, and Justin Wines in Paso Robles. They are famed for their domination of pistachio, almond, pomegranate, and citrus agribusiness in the Central Valley.
Starting in 2010 with the purchase of Justin Winery, Resnick, through his wholly-owned The Wonderful Company, has been purchasing multiple acreages in the Paso Robles area. Since then, Resnick company holdings have grown to more than 1,600 acres in San Luis Obispo County.
A primary proponent of the proposed Paso Robles basin water district, the Resnicks donated $12,000 to the effort rejected by 77 percent of voters.
The Resnicks, whose agricultural empire of more than 3 million acres in the Americas, have garnered more than a 70 percent monopoly of several crops including almonds, pistachios, pomegranates and peaches.
In the 1980s and 90s, the Resnicks – through Paramount Farms – began buying up Central Valley land and water rights. Through their purchases, along with other wealthy landowners, they created the Kern Water Bank using public funds. This provided the Resnicks with an unlimited water supply for their ventures and the ability to resell water for big profits.
Nevertheless, some of their neighbors were left without clean water, and eventually lost their farms.
Another example of the Resnicks commandeering natural resources for profit, was their creation of a bottled water company called FIJI Water. While the Resnicks profit from exporting water, the Island residents don’t always have access to clean drinking water.
When the Fiji government wanted to impose a higher tax, Roll Global shut down operations in Nov. 2010 in protest. The shutdown lasted only a few days — until Roll Global executives and Fiji government representatives were able to reach agreement on future relations.
Locally, not everyone is eager to continue purchasing Resnick brands. Farmers and property owners are asking people to attend the San Luis Obispo County Board of Supervisor’s meeting next Tuesday to voice concerns.
“We are seeing an uprising,” Trevisan said. “This needs to stop. They need to answer the hard question, why are you doing this?”