As the San Luis Obispo County Board of Supervisors grappled with issues surrounding a moratorium on new water usage in the Paso Robles Groundwater Basin, locals lobbed accusations of a conflict of interest at 5th District Supervisor Debbie Arnold.
Arnold, whose district shares the basin with the 1st District to its north, has been a bit of an outlier on the issue; she voted against the ordinance’s passing Oct. 1 and abstained on Oct. 8. Arnold’s family owns a small vineyard on Pozo Road, southeast of Santa Margarita. Their operation, Pozo Valley Vineyard, is a petite 32 acres on part of the land the Arnold family has been farming for 100 years.
The land in question doesn’t draw water from the basin.
Debbie and Steve Arnold filed a building permit application for various facilities on their land in Pozo on Sept. 26. The permit lists a total of 2,160 square feet of building, including a storage facility, an uncovered crush pad, and a tasting room. Because new building is potentially banned by the moratorium, and accusations of a conflict of interest have continued to pile up in the newsroom’s inbox—even though the Arnolds’ land isn’t over the basin—New Times looked into the matter.
Within minutes of a reporter returning to the office after requesting a copy of the permit from the county Planning Department, he got an unsolicited call from Arnold’s office.
The supervisor was happy to explain the situation, she said, echoing sentiments expressed by many agriculturists in the area that wine grapes are the most recent crop planted on their land, a decision made because grapes are among the most economically sound crops to grow locally.
“I think we’re a perfect example of a small family farm or ranch,” Arnold told New Times. “Wine grapes have brought in enough money that another generation can make a living on the ranch.”
Originally contracted to grow grapes for the Robert Mondavi empire, Arnold’s children eventually decided they wanted to go into the wine business for themselves. They grew grapes but up until now didn’t have the capital to build their own winery and tasting room, so they made the wine in a co-op facility in east Paso Robles, she explained. Now, after much planning and saving, the family is ready to break ground.
“It’s not really an expansion; I almost feel like it’s a more efficient way to continue our business,” Arnold said. “We’re almost downsizing in that we’re trying to do the same thing in one location instead of three different ones.”
Part of this “downsizing” would actually mean pulling their winemaking process off the Paso basin, and bringing it home to Pozo.
So does this business amount to a conflict of interest with Arnold’s voting on the Paso groundwater crisis? According to Deputy County Counsel Rita Neal, it does not.
-- Melody DeMeritt - former city council member, Morro Bay