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State OKs Forest-to-vineyard Plan in Sonoma County

Brett Wilkison, The Press Democrat, May 8, 2012

The 324-acre site for a forestland to vineyard project stretches from the grass area to the redwood/ fir stand in the background at Artesa Winery’s proposed Fairfax Estate on the outskirts of Annapolis. State forestry officials on Tuesday approved a controversial timber-to-vineyard conversion project in northwest Sonoma County, following through with a decision expected months ago.

The decision on what is considered the largest timber-to-vineyard project in state history clears the most significant regulatory hurdle facing Artesa Vineyards and Winery.

The Napa-based vintner, owned by the Spanish wine giant Grupo Codorniu, wants to turn 116 acres into chardonnay and pinot noir vineyards on 324 acres of second-growth forestland, former orchards and grazed meadows just east of Annapolis. Another 30 acres would be cleared for a reservoir, roads and a corporation yard.

The project has been on the drawing board for more than a decade and under state review since 2009.

Bill Snyder, a deputy director at Cal Fire, the state forestry and fire agency, signed off on the plans Tuesday, certifying a lengthy environmental impact report that he called a “well-written document.”

Artesa spokesman Sam Singer said company officials were pleased with the decision and were looking forward to advancing the project.

The approval came over the objections of a number of environmental groups, local Indian tribes and some neighbors, who have voiced concerns about harm to water, wildlife, archeological sites and disturbance of the rural landscape.

One Sonoma County supervisor and two state lawmakers had urged Cal Fire to hold off on a decision, calling for another round of public input on the project.

Opponents say safeguards and habitat reserves proposed by Artesa to protect biological and cultural resources are not sufficient.

And they express broader concern about the practice of clearing forest for wine grapes, pushing back at the reach of the region’s top-grossing crop into untilled parts of the county.

“The no-brainer issue is, should we be cutting down our forestlands when there are alternatives for where we put vineyards?’” said Chris Poehlmann, president of The Friends of Gualala River, one of three environmental groups considering a lawsuit over the project. The other two considering legal action are the Redwood Chapter of the Sierra Club and the Arizona-based Center for Biological Diversity.

A coalition of tribes including the Kashia Pomo of nearby Stewarts Point Rancheria are exploring their legal options, sources said.

Noise from the Artesa operation remains a concern at the neighboring Starcross Community, but an attorney for the monastic order said litigation was not currently in the works.

Discussions involving Cal Fire, Artesa, the tribes and Starcross were factors in pushing back the final decision by three months.

Singer, the Artesa spokesman, said company officials believe the project will hold up in court and that the plan “meets and or exceeds all the requirements of the state and sound environmental practices.”

The project is one of two high-profile vineyard proposals to clear remote Sonoma County foreslands drawing nationwide media attention. The other project, put forward by the state pension giant CalPERS, would be 12 times larger than Artesa,clearing up to 1,769 acres for vineyards across a total of 19,652 acres.

Unlike Artesa, CalPERS’ project, known as Preservation Ranch, is subject to county rules governing timber conversions and is working its way through a county-led review. Artesa’s original application predated the 2006 county rules, making its conversion subject only to state approval.

Artesa still needs to clear two more hurdles. The first is approval of its logging plan, a step overseen by Cal Fire officials based in Santa Rosa. The largely procedural decision is expected in the next few weeks.

Artesa also must secure a vineyard development permit from the county Agricultural Commissioner’s office. The rules governing such permits have recently been strengthened to govern projects calling for tree removal on hillsides and ridgetops.

Artesa officials have said they intend to comply with the updated rules, which are aimed to control water runoff and limit erosion.

Given the additional state and county approvals, Artesa could begin work this summer. Under the county vineyard development rules, work this year would have to be completed by October 15.