Mostly clear

Sonoma County timber-to-vineyard conversion headed for approval

State officials signaled this week they intend to approve a controversial timber-to-vineyard conversion project in rural northwest Sonoma County, overruling the latest wave of objections, this time from some neighbors, local tribes and several elected officials.

Napa-based Artesa Vineyards, owned by the Spanish wine giant Grupo Codorniu, plans to create 116 acres of premium chardonnay and pinot noir vineyards, 20 acres of roads and a nine-acre reservoir on 324 acres of second-growth forestland, former orchards and grazed meadows just east of Annapolis.

The project is much smaller than vineyard plans in the same area by state pension giant CalPERS, which wants to clear up to 1,769 acres on 19,652 acres. Both projects have drawn fire from environmentalists nationwide and others opposed to cutting trees to make room for wine grapes.

The Artesa project, under state review since 2009, has been stalled lately by lesser-known and late-breaking critics.

Leaders of Starcross Community, a small non-denominational monastic retreat bordering the Artesa property, stepped forward with their concerns about noise from the vineyard operation, which they fear could mar their quiet setting on Annapolis Road.

"Part of our dream is one of peace. Quiet is a main ingredient," said Tolbert McCarroll, one of a trio of lay Catholic ministers who started Starcross in 1975 on 115 acres just north of the Artesa property.

Another factor was formal opposition lodged recently by three local tribes, including the Kashia Pomo, whose ancestral lands encompass the region. Kashia leaders are concerned about damage to the environment and archeological resources known to exist in the area.

The protests prompted elected county and state officials to ask for more public input and a closer look at the Artesa project.

But Bill Snyder, deputy director of resource management for Cal Fire, the state forestry and fire agency overseeing the project, said reopening the proposal to another round of public comment was unnecessary under state law and unwarranted for the issues raised by Starcross and the Kashia tribe.

Most have been dealt with by the project's lengthy environmental report, he said, adding that he expects to approve the proposal in the next couple of weeks.

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