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Controversial Preservation Ranch proposal braces for public review

Preservation Ranch, in the heart of the Gualala River watershed

Preservation Ranch, in the heart of the Gualala River watershed

by Frank Robertson Sonoma West Staff Writer

PRESERVATION OR EXPLOITATION? – A map of the area that will be potentially affected by the Preservation Ranch. The 20,000 acre project will include more than 1,600 acres of vineyards, as well as a 2,702-acre wildlife preserve, 1,635 acres of Riparian Management Areas, 221 acres dedicated for the expansion of Soda Springs Reserve, and a 5-mile public trail easement. ANNAPOLIS – Public review begins this week on the high-end vineyard and real estate venture called Preservation Ranch that proponents say would restore and protect nearly 20,000 acres of logged-over timberland between Healdsburg and the Sonoma Coast.

“Scoping sessions” to get public input on the project’s potential pros and cons start next Wednesday (April 29) in Santa Rosa at the Sonoma County Permit and Resource Management Department and again on May 2 at Horicon Elementary School in the little hamlet of Annapolis which is near the site of the proposal.

Three pre-scoping sessions also take place at Horicon School this Saturday, April 25, at 10 a.m., 1 p.m. and 4 p.m.

“We want people to pay attention. We want the community to really take a good look at this,” said Eric Koenigshofer, a consultant for Premier Pacific Vineyards, Inc., the vineyard development company that five years ago acquired the Preservation Ranch property and is proposing an ambitious long-term plan to restore the watershed as well as build homes, develop vineyards and dedicate hundreds of acres for wildlife preservation and public parks.

The project’s most controversial aspect is the conversion of more than 1,600 acres of designated forestland to vineyards, a plan that enrages environmental groups such as the Sierra Club which has called the proposal “worse than a clearcut.”

Preservation proponents counter that for every acre of timber converted to grapes, two acres must be dedicated and restored to permanent timber production under the terms of a two-year-old county timber conversion ordinance. In addition, Premier Pacific is promising to plant a million conifers on the property, repair old logging roads to reduce sediment runoff into streams and dedicate wide protected streamside riparian corridors to help restore the Gualala River watershed’s fish and wildlife habitat, said Koenigshofer.

If Premier Pacific’s plan succeeds the 19,300-acre property would contain 1,861 acres of vineyards and nearly 15,000 acres of timberland managed in perpetuity as a sustained yield forest.

The controversial vineyards are the key to making the larger forest restoration projects work, say proponents. The vineyards “fund all the rest of the undertaking,” said Koenigshofer.

Preservation Ranch needs state and county permits for the project that includes merging 160 recognized legal existing parcels that without the Preservation Ranch project could all be sold and developed separately.

The parcels, created before there was a county General Plan, exceed General Plan recommended densities by 85 parcels, according to an Initial Study completed by the county Permit and Resource Management Department.

“The applicant proposes to merge parcels so that the total number of parcels on the Site is reduced from 160 to 63, a reduction of 97 parcels,” according to the initial study that can be accessed online at the county PRMD web site. Portions of 26 of the existing parcels would be encumbered by a single 2,627-acre easement for a proposed Windy Gap Preserve and five parcels would be merged for a 221-acre dedication for expansion of Soda Springs Reserve, a county regional park. A total of 17 vineyards are proposed plus 40 reservoirs to store winter rain water for irrigation. No groundwater would be used for vineyard production.

An environmental impact report will determine whether the project can include about 60 proposed new homes on large acreage parcels.

Easements over the site would determine and limit the vineyard locations and provide governance for ongoing timber and grape harvesting surrounding the potential new homes.

Public benefits identified by the applicant for in the initial study include:

  • a 14,590-acre Sustainable Timber Management Area that includes preservation and enhancement of 11,355 acres of commercial timberland within Sonoma County,
  • approximately 1,878 acres of Large Tree Management Areas and approximately 1,635 acres of Riparian Management Areas.
  • a 2,702-acre wildlife preserve (Windy Gap Preserve) on which no commercial timber harvest would be permitted,
  • 221 acres dedicated for the expansion of the existing Soda Springs Reserve,
  • a 5-mile public trail easement, and
  • increased county tax revenues for Sonoma County by producing higher quality varietal wine grapes on the project site. The required environmental impact report will probably take at least a year to complete a draft, which would then be put out for public comment and hearings. The April 29 scoping session at PRMD runs from 4 to 6 p.m. The May 2 session at Horicon School goes from 1 to 3 p.m.