May 13 should have been the day that Caltrans starting eliminating left-hand turns on Highway 101 at El Campo Road and three other intersections between Los Berros Road and Traffic Way, but a lawsuit filed by Laetitia Vineyard and Winery's parent company has indefinitely halted the project.
Vintage Wine Estates, which purchased Laetitia in March, filed a lawsuit in Sacramento County Court on May 7 against the state of California, the California Department of Transportation (Caltrans), and Papich Construction Company Inc.
- Photo By Jayson Mellom
- FINDING SOLUTIONS Although Vintage Wine Estates has apologized for its lawsuit, James Grant is still calling for a boycott of their wineries and products.
Due to the legal challenge, the judge assigned to the case ordered a temporary stay on the El Campo project while the case is in litigation—stopping it indefinitely.
Days after the lawsuit was filed, James Grant—whose seven-month advocacy spurred the closure discussion after his son, Jordan Grant, was fatally injured in October 2018—called for a boycott of Laetitia Winery and all other wineries owned by Vintage Wine Estates.
"We called for a boycott as we recognized that this was an intentional business decision by Vintage Wine Estates to try to maintain wine tasting traffic," Grant said in an email interview. "Even though with the expected safety changes, their customers would still have had access to their winery, but some would have to drive a little farther."
Grant also started a petition on May 10 on change.org to boycott the winery and parent company; as of press time, the petition had more than 2,400 signatures.
The lawsuit, obtained by New Times, states that Vintage Wine Estates seeks to compel Caltrans to properly analyze, disclose, and mitigate the significant adverse environmental impacts associated with the closure of the four intersections—El Campo Road, Tower Grove Drive/Laetitia Drive, Hemi Road, and an unnamed road.
In the suit, Vintage alleges that Caltrans violated California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) by failing to prepare an environmental impact report and/or mitigated negative declaration for the project, failing to adopt feasible mitigation measures, failing to analyze alternatives to the project, and approving the project on the basis of findings that are not supported by substantial evidence.
The project, the lawsuit asserts, was approved based on an emergency exemption, but because there wasn't a recent accident at Laetitia Vineyard Drive, Hemi Road, or the unnamed road, the exemption should therefore not be applicable to all of the crossings.
The lawsuit alleges that Caltrans' deputy director for planning and local assistance has admitted that its decision to close the crossing is political and not based on an emergency.
New Times reached out to Caltrans, but officials said they didn't have any further comment at this time.
On May 13, Vintage Wine Estates President Terry Wheatley released an open letter stating they heard the voices of the community and that the intention of the lawsuit was not to take public safety or the death of Jordan lightly.
"The lawsuit was intended to focus Sacramento on the urgent issue and not settle for a stop-gap or years-down-the-road solution," it read. "We fell short of our responsibility to explore and communicate this to the community, and for that, we apologize."
The letter states that the company wants an overpass, currently on a 20-year project completion timeline, to be fast-tracked by Caltrans on an accelerated five-year completion date.
The company stated that its priority is for its employees, guests, and neighbors to use the four intersections safely, but many people took to social media to say that the lawsuit was done out of greed.
Supporters of the median closures left reviews on Google, Yelp, and the Facebook pages of Laetitia Vineyard and Winery and Vintage Wine Estates.
Betsy Daly commented on Google reviews stating that the winery was putting people's lives at risk because of the lawsuit.
"Putting both their customers and the public in danger for profit. Just what you want, a bunch of people who just went wine tasting crossing a freeway at an unsafe intersection," the comment said.
On May 13, Grant said that the CEO of Vintage Wine Estates, Patrick Rooney, had reached out to him by phone to speak of his support for closing El Campo and his desire to resolve the problem in the next week or two.
New Times reached out to Vintage Wine Estates for comment but was told there wasn't any additional information to release at this time. The company's chief operational officer has been in email communication with Grant, and the chief executive officer will meet in person with Grant and neighbors sometime this week.
According to San Luis Obispo Council of Governments officials, a long-term solution to the intersections, an overpass, is in the council's long-range plans, but there isn't a readily available funding source to pay for a $35 million to $50 million interchange. Δ
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