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The Sam and Vicki Sebastiani Story

When Sam and Vicki Sebastiani decided to turn part of their 175-acre winery into wetlands, they had no idea that this good environmental deed would draw the ire of regulators.

The Sebastianis are third generation heirs to one of California's most noted wine families, Sebastiani Vineyards. Besides being a winegrower, Sam Sebastiani is also a dedicated conservationist, as was his father. Recognizing the importance of wetlands, Sebastiani decided to turn a 90-acre portion of his winery into wetlands. He enlisted the support of Ducks Unlimited and the California Department of Fish and Game and, at considerable expense, constructed wetlands on what had been seasonally-flooded lowlands too wet for vineyards. Since the wetlands were completed in 1993, more than 156 species of birds have been recorded on the site. On a single day, over 10,000 waterfowl were counted in the Sebastianis' wetlands. In addition, it has become a significant wintering site for some species of duck.

The project should have cost only $50,000 and taken 60 days to complete. But the onerous mandates of federal, state and local regulators inflated the cost to $181,000 and stretched the construction time to eight months. A total of eight regulatory entities got involved in the approval process: the Sonoma County Board of Supervisors; Sonoma County Planning Department, Permits and Resource Management; Sonoma County Reclamation District; California Department of Fish and Game; U.S. Army Corps of Engineers; U.S. Environmental Protection Agency; U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the U.S. Department of Justice.

The Army Corps of Engineers was especially difficult. Rather than viewing the Sebastianis' efforts as a laudable example of wetlands restoration, the Corps of Engineers viewed it as wetlands destruction. The Corps of Engineers claimed that the construction of a 1,500-foot levee, necessary for the creation of the wetlands as well as to protect a neighbor's farm from flooding, destroyed existing wetlands. So in addition to constructing a 90-acre wetlands, the Sebastianis had to build another 4-acre wetlands on another section of their property.

An official with the California Department of Fish and Game observed that the "exuberance" of federal regulators in enforcing the letter of the law "is going to be counterproductive and discourage stewardship. We should be working with landowners and not against them."
Source: R.J. Smith, Competitive Enterprise Institute