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St. Jorge Winery prepares to fight ruling

Winery's owners hope to resolve issues without tearing down structure

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Posted: Saturday, October 12, 2013 12:00 am

Vern Vierra walks through his sprawling $50,000 structure, complete with rows of poles, short metal braces laid overhead and grape vines spiraling around the beams. When Vern and his wife Jenise Vierra, owners of St. Jorge Winery in Acampo, started construction 18 months ago, they envisioned an outdoor wine garden resembling an amphitheater, with a trellis, free of a roof or walls.

However, county officials envision that in less than a year, the structure will be gone.

On Tuesday, San Joaquin County Board of Supervisors voted unanimously that the winery must demolish its wine garden — or amphitheater, according to the county — since it was built without any permits. Vierra says the county misled him into believing the structure didn’t need permits.

And days after the decision, Vierra, a contractor, is committed to overturning the ruling and enjoying the 5,600-square-foot structure for years to come.

“With my background and the fact that I had so many other projects going on in the county, why would I jeopardize my construction license and those projects and my relationship with the county, which has been good for 35 years?” he said.

Tuesday’s hearing came before supervisors after neighbors of the winery, Romano and Judy Isola, appealed a decision by the San Joaquin County Planning Commission to grant the Vierras several building permits, including one for the amphitheater and the rest for structures that the winery called necessary to meet increasing sale demands. The Planning Commission also approved additional marketing events and attendees at each event per year.

Supervisors overturned the Planning Commission’s decision based on safety concerns and what they said was the Portuguese winery’s history of violating county restrictions.

During the meeting, Community Development Department Director Kerry Sullivan portrayed St. Jorge Winery, which has operated for four years, as a rogue business. Aside from repeatedly exceeding the number of allotted marketing events and attendees, Sullivan said, the Vierras built the amphitheater without permission or permits from the county.

Vierra, though, said that before breaking ground on the project he took the plans to the county’s building department, which told him the structure didn’t require permits.

“I clearly thought that it was not an issue, that it was not a building, that it was not a structure,” Vierra said. “They didn’t really know what I was going to build. It was a misunderstanding between the county and me.”

According to Sullivan: “(Vierra) did not (bring plans to the county), and the people who he says told him that have very strongly denied that. I know we did not tell him ... that was OK to build.”

Several months later, after the concrete had been laid, the stage had been built and all the metal beams had been erected, county officials saw the structure and ordered the Vierras to stop work, stating that it did, in fact, need permits.

According to Vierra, county officials told him that while there are no county ordinances that require permits for a structure like his, the county has the ability to interpret if a structure needs a permit.

St. Jorge Winery advertised that the amphitheater would host weddings, concerts and other outdoor events, which Sullivan said would require the structure to have building permits.

“(The amphitheater) was never approved as part of an expansion of a winery,” Sullivan said. “It was way outside the land use permit, so that’s the problem. And a lot of what he built does fall into the category of ‘structure,’ and that would need a building permit.”

During Tuesday’s meeting, attorney David Isola, who is the son of Romano and Judy Isola and was representing them, accused the Vierras of continuing work on the amphitheater after the county ordered them to stop.

Vierra said that aside from laying a couple rows of brick steps, he did no other work on the amphitheater. He added that he planted grape vines at the base of the poles only after receiving permission from the county.

“We agreed we would stop and hold off,” Vierra said. “It was only a month later that (the county) said, ‘You have all your plants and pots. You’re going to lose all that landscape. Go ahead and plant those. You don’t need a permit for that.’”

Vierra is now consulting with his attorneys and exploring ways to avoid losing his wine garden.

David Isola said his parents are not concerned about the fate of the structure. They only want to eliminate the noise from the winery’s marketing events.

“(We don’t care) so long as they’re not going to use it for a purpose that disturbs my parents or the neighborhood,” he said.

Vierra also wants a third party to determine whether the amphitheater needs permits.

Vierra said he hopes to negotiate with the county, adding he’d be open to removing the braces that stretch across the top of the structure.

“I can’t image (the county) wanting to take down vertical poles with grapes growing on them,” he said. “But I can understand that when you connect those poles it becomes a structure.”

Sullivan said the county would discuss how to proceed with the supervisors’ ruling.

“It’s very clear that the board does not want it used,” she said. “It’s not permitted under planning permits or building permits right now. The next step is for us ... to talk about what options there might be for that structure.”

Vierra will have to wait 12 months before he can resubmit an application for additional building permits.

In recent years St. Jorge Winery has drastically increased its production and is even shipping to Hong Kong. But without the permits he requested, Vierra isn’t sure how the winery will accomidate its demands. In the meantime, he remains confident that his wine garden will stay standing.

“We are allowed to have vines growing on vertical poles out there,” Vierra said.

Contact reporter Kristopher Anderson at krisa@lodinews.com.

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