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A project that would clear up to 146 acres of forest for vineyards in northwest Sonoma County is nearing state approval.

The controversial proposal, put forward by Napa-based Artesa Vineyards on 324 acres outside of Annapolis, has been on the drawing board for more than a decade, with the latest version under review since 2009.

The state Department of Forestry and Fire Protection released a final environmental impact report Thursday that is expected to result in formal approval after the 10-day review period ends Feb. 19.

Backers of the project are cheering its progress in clearing what is considered the last major approval hurdle, <NO1><NO>although it still faces <NO1><NO>a legal threat.

"The EIR shows that Artesa is acting responsibly as an excellent steward of the land in Annapolis," said Sam Singer, a spokesman for Artesa, which is owned by the Spanish wine giant Grupo Codorniu.

But opponents concerned about impacts on the environment and tribal sites are girding for a court fight.

"This is a foreign corporation coming into the coastal forests of California wanting to cut down our forests for their corporate gain," said Chris Poehlmann, president of The Friends of Gualala River, one of several local environmental groups opposed to the project.

Artesa's plan is one of two high-profile vineyard projects planned for the sprawling landscape of second-growth redwood and fir outside of Annapolis.

The other, called Preservation Ranch, would clear up to 1,769 acres on 20,000 acres owned by CalPERS, the giant state workers pension fund. That project, still in the review stage, is the largest of its kind statewide in generations.

Together, the two projects have sparked a growing debate featuring national news coverage, online petitions and organized protests about the reach of vineyards into remote corners of the North Coast.

Artesa's project is on land formerly used for sheep grazing, apple orchards and lumber production. It would nearly double the size of any timberland conversion approved in Sonoma County in at least the past decade.

Unlike Preservation Ranch, Artesa's plans are not subject to county rules governing timber conversions because the company's original application date predates those 2006 rules.

Sonoma County Supervisor Efren Carrillo, who represents the area and who's been pressured by constituents to weigh in on the two vineyard projects, last week called that loophole "unfortunate."

Artesa bought the property in 1999 for $1.7 million and proposed a smaller vineyard project in 2001 before withdrawing those plans in 2005. The company submitted its current proposal in 2009.

Out of the 146 acres to be cleared of trees, the plans call for 116 acres to be planted with grapes, with the remainder in roads, a nine-acre reservoir and a one-acre equipment yard.

Artesa produces about 95,000 cases annually, according to the latest state records. It intends to tap the new vineyards for its Sonoma Coast Estate chardonnay and pinot noir labels.

The company would set aside nearly half the 324-acre property, including buffers for streams and reserves to protect other habitat and archeological resources.

About 50 rare and sensitive plant and animal species are known to live in the area, but the safeguards would make the project's impacts less than significant on wildlife, water and air quality and a number of other resource categories, state officials said.

"In terms of identifying any major issues, we've gone to pretty great lengths to address them in whatever way we can," said Dennis Hall, forest practices staff chief for Cal Fire, the state forestry and fire agency.

Artesa officials say the efforts demonstrate a commitment to careful farming.

But critics say the plans underestimate harm to water quality, including impacts on struggling salmon and steelhead stocks in the Gualala River watershed, and disturbance of Kashia Pomo tribal sites in the area.

They have called for the property's protection as a conservation and cultural reserve.

"Our group is willing to go to the mat on this, along with Preservation Ranch," said Poehlmann, the Friends of the Gualala River president, vowing a court challenge.

Singer, the Artesa spokesman, called the prospect of a legal battle "unfortunate but not unexpected."

The formal decision on the project's environmental report and timber conversion permit rests with Bill Snyder, Cal Fire's deputy director for resource management.

Even if it receives the go-ahead after Feb. 19, Artesa's work on the property still could be months away. A court decision could halt the project.

And regional Cal Fire officials must sign off on a timber harvest plan, a largely procedural step that would start after formal action in Sacramento. Public comment on the plan is already closed.

State and Sonoma County rules generally restrict major timber-clearing projects to a dry-season window of April through October.

This year, on top of those restrictions, Artesa has found itself among a small list of projects subject to a county-ordered temporary freeze on new hillside and ridgetop vineyard projects resulting in tree removal.

The moratorium, which is set to last through May, is meant to upgrade 12-year-old vineyard development and erosion rules that don't account for tree removal.

Carrillo called Artesa's project "a prime example of the need to look" at updating those rules.

Singer, the Artesa spokesman, said company officials understood the project would not be subject to the moratorium.

Because Artesa's plans call for removal of non-commercial tree species such as oaks, as well as 50- to 75-year-old coast redwood and Douglas fir — commercial species governed by the state — the county moratorium does apply, said Agricultural Commissioner Tony Linegar.

"That would fall under our jurisdiction," Linegar said.

You can reach Staff Writer Brett Wilkison at 521-5295 or brett.wilkison@pressdemocrat.com.

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