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My Grapes Or Your Sleep

Sleepless people are unhappy people, and there are lots of sleepless, unhappy people in the Anderson Valley these days.

Many of Anderson Valley's grape growers, large and small, have installed giant propellers that raise vineyard temperatures a few degrees to protect budding vines against frost. There are now about 50 of these propane-fueled machines strung out along the valley floor between Boonville and Navarro. There are also a couple of thousand strung out residents of the Anderson Valley whose sleep has been seriously disturbed by twelve days of the din raised by these devices, eight of those days occurring on eight consecutive mornings between the hours of midnight and 8am.

As of Mother's Day morning, when the fans were inexplicably activated at 4am on a non-frost morning when temperatures were a positively tropical 44 degrees, and again the next morning at somewhat lower decibel levels, the Anderson Valley has suffered a total of 12 early morning aural assaults this growing season.

The grape people say that in the unprecedented drought we find ourselves in, they have no choice but to deploy wind machines because water is scarce. Most of us understand that and even sympathize with the grower's dilemma, but 200 of them can't expect 2,000 of us to forgo rest from midnight to dawn for two weeks every year.

Wendy Read called a community meeting for last Wednesday night at the Philo Grange to discuss what most residents of Anderson Valley, including the winery and vineyard people, consider a major noise problem. There is, however, no agreement about what to do about that major problem.

The grape growers claim they've got to use the fans because they don't have enough water to activate their sprinkler systems for frost protection. The much larger population of non-grape growers is demanding that fan noise be abated.

About 50 people attended the Grange meeting called by Ms. Read, a majority of them associated with the wine industry. The industry people may have thought that the low turnout of angry citizens unaffiliated with grape production means that the protests will end short of legal action, that local people will simply reconcile themselves to a couple of annual weeks of disrupted sleep. That assumption would be a serious miscalculation. Private meetings not open to grape growers continue. Angry neighbors of the wind machines are aimed at stopping the early morning noise, which they regard as an unfair imposition on them, a disturbance no residential neighborhood should be asked to endure.

There were certainly angry people in the audience at last Wednesday night's meeting. One woman said the noise from the giant propellers shook her house and was so generally unendurable that she “felt like going out in my front yard and screaming. This is not acceptable,” she said, a sentiment shared by the non-grape growing part of the audience.

Her front yard screams would not have been heard. The noise from these machines is that loud. Another victim of terminally abbreviated sleep said the din reminded her of “Apocalypse Now.”

You might think statements like that are overwrought, an exaggeration. They’re not. I can tell you that at my house the 2am shock that caused me to bolt upright in my bed was that same combination of an apocalyptic din accompanied by an earthquake-like rattling of my entire house. I thought a helicopter was landing on my roof.

If you are within 500 yards of these things you cannot sleep through them with earplugs, pillows, a pint of Jack Daniel's, whatever your noise abatement strategy is. Bill Charles, a neighbor and a grape grower, says if you keep a small fan on in your bedroom while the giant fans are on next door, the small fan somehow cancels out the big one. I'd like to see a physics work up on that one, but Charles says it worked for Mrs. Charles, and his frost protection machine is only a few yards from his house.

By even the loosest legal definition, the roar of these machines represents injury to their neighbors, and would be a serious area-wide disturbance even during daylight work hours in an industrial area. The Anderson Valley is not an industrial area, and here's the rub: The wine industry, although classified as agriculture, is an industrial enterprise heavily dependent on chemicals and heavily dependent on hitherto lightly exploited sources of local water. And, now, this new industry, not yet 50 years old in the Anderson Valley and still expanding, has added these hugely disruptive wind machines to what still is considered a rural area.

The wind machines violate Mendocino County's own noise ordinance in three ways — decibel level, duration, and hours of operation. And they violate the spirit, if not the letter, of the County's Right To Farm ordinance.

Ms. Read, a long-time resident of the Anderson Valley, began the meeting, which was cordial throughout, by saying, “It's really good that as a community we are coming together to solve problems.” She's probably less optimistic now. Civil as the meeting was, it was clear from their comments that the growers are intransigent. They will continue to use the machines in their present unmodulated form if they feel they have to to save their grapes.

If the noise problem is solved short of the courts, and unless the machines are modified to radically reduce their illegal din to the levels specified by the County’s noise ordinance, the issue will probably wind up in court, it will be solved by the wine people recognizing that they've created a major nuisance that they will have to do something about or have the solution imposed on them.

The growers stressed three major themes in their remarks: If their critics would just try and understand how hard the wine people try to be good neighbors and how important they are to the Mendocino County economy, and the difficult position they’re in because of the drought, the rest of us would stop complaining. The growers insisted time and again that they normally would be drawing upon the valley’s rivers for frost protection, but now that there’s not much water they have to deploy mechanical means to protect their crops.

Ted Bennett of Navarro vineyards said if it came down his grapes or people’s sleep his grapes trumped our sleep. Bennett seemed to think that the complaints were a prelude to a lawsuit.

The growers tried to change the focus of the conversation from fan noise, but when noise was unavoidably the subject the growers talked about how they might make adjustments that would lower the horrendously intrusive decibel level of their machines. But, as one local put it after the meeting, “They seem to think that if they reduce the noise from ten helicopters landing on your house to eight helicopters, they’ve accomplished something.”

Mark Scaramella pointed out while growers agreed that their fans are a nuisance they didn't concede that they're operating them in violation of the County’s noise ordinance. Nor did the growers invoke the County’s “Right To Farm” advisory, which some people think gives vineyard owners carte blanche to do whatever they have to do to protect grapes.

It's not yet possible to predict how intransigent the wine people will become. Those present seemed at least partially conciliatory at last week's meeting, but immediately, over the following mornings, and although the temperatures in the valley did not approach freezing, the noise commenced at 4am.

Firing up the noise when it's not freezing does a pretty good imitation of a provocation. It's as if the Wine People are saying, “Take this, saps. Try and stop us.”

But the Pajama People are angry and are mobilizing. March and April of next year are going to be very interesting.

Notes: 

5th District Supervisor Dan Hamburg did not attend the meeting. We've written to him for his “position” on the wind fan issue but there's been no response.

After the meeting, as we shuffled out into the chill of the night sending silent prayers skyward that the temps wouldn't drop into the 2am Clamor Zone, I enjoyed a brief go-round with a kid from one of the vineyard families. Smart and articulate, The Kid had spoken earlier in the meeting about how he resented being referred to as one of the Noise People. I introduced myself as the proud author of that designation. The Kid is militant for the fans. He marveled at the person who'd complained that she couldn't sleep with her windows open. “Who sleeps with their windows open in the winter?” he demanded. “I do,” I said, “and so did Benjamin Franklin.” I didn't say that Franklin had died of pneumonia, and we went on mostly not communicating. But even he wound up conceding that the machines make too much noise. He assured me that the Noise People were really, really trying to do something to quiet them down. “I just hope it rains next year,” The Kid said.

One Comment

  1. JOHN DOLE May 14, 2014

    Oh quit whining about the wind machines. It’s a few days out of a whole year. I lived right next to the hospital and I had to listen to the calstar/reach helicopter fly right over my house CONSTANTLY. So low my windows rattled. Guess what? I GOT USED TO IT!!
    So you would rather see these ranchers lose everything they ever worked for so you can get sleep. How very inconsiderate of you.

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