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State OKs forest-to-vineyard plan in Sonoma County

  • 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. (PD File/2011)

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 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. An additional 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 firefighting 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, Indian tribes and some neighbors, who have voiced concerns about harm to water, wildlife, archaeological sites and disturbance of the rural landscape.

A 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 suing over the project. The other two are the Redwood Chapter of the Sierra Club and the Arizona-based Center for Biological Diversity.

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