Supervisors approve landmark deal to purchase Preservation Ranch

Sonoma County supervisors hailed a landmark conservation deal Tuesday as they unanimously approved $4 million in open space dollars to help with the $24.5 million purchase of Preservation Ranch in the county's northwest corner.

"It's a great day for residents of the county and the entire North Coast," said Supervisor Efren Carrillo, who represents west county, including the rugged swath of coastal forest where the 19,650-acre property sits.

The funding clears the way for the largest conservation deal by acreage in county history, set to close May 31. It also defuses a prolonged battle over a plan to clear nearly 1,800 acres of forest for winegrapes.

The proposal, backed by CalPERS, the giant state workers pension fund, drew national media attention and provoked widespread opposition from environmentalists, local tribes and even some winemakers.

By comparison, the purchase deal that derails the vineyard project reached late last year between CalPERS and public and private conservation officials, enjoyed relatively little fanfare Tuesday. The smaller crowd meant good news, supporters said. The fight is over, they said.

"If a couple of years ago you'd told me that the Board of Supervisors would be looking at Preservation Ranch and the chambers would be half empty, it would have been unbelievable," said Ralph Benson, executive director of Sonoma Land Trust, the private nonprofit that is a partner in the deal.

For Carrillo, who was credited with helping to advance the purchase, the political risks inherent in a vote on the vineyard proposal were especially high. The 32-year-old supervisor, who is considering a run for a seat in the state legislature, expressed some relief Tuesday.

"I can imagine the packed room if we had had an alternative proposal before this board," he said. "I won't go there."

Once home to the Kashia Pomo, the hilly ranch was heavily logged in the 1950s and '60s. It includes 20 miles of streams inhabited by coho salmon and steelhead trout, while mountain lions, bobcats and deer roam the land.

CalPERS, the $263 billion state workers pension fund, has controlled Preservation Ranch for nearly a decade. For most of that time, the ownership was through a Napa-based vineyard development firm that bought the property in 2004 for $28.5 million.

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