The Lytton Band of Pomo Indians has added remote coastal property to its growing Sonoma County real estate portfolio, including 300 acres once owned by a large Spanish wine company that had a controversial plan to clear-cut timber and plant vineyards there.
The tribe, which bought the forest land once owned by Artesa Vineyards and Winery, has been vague about its plans for the property near Annapolis, making some neighbors uneasy.
“They are tight-lipped about things,” said Chris Poehlmann, president of Friends of the Gualala River, which fought the Artesa plan to clear 154 acres of second- and third-growth redwood and fir trees and former orchard land to grow premium pinot and chardonnay grapes.
A spokesman for the Lytton Pomos said they have no immediate plans, but wouldn’t rule out putting in vineyards on the property that the tribe bought for $1.4 million from Artesa’s corporate parent, wine giant Grupo Codorniu. The tribe also is in the process of buying another 34 contiguous acres for approximately $900,000, which it said has more cleared area suitable for planting grapes.
“We look at business opportunities and purchase lands that are available where we think there is a business opportunity or (for) cultural preservation,” said Larry Stidham, the attorney who serves as spokesman for the tribe whose lucrative San Pablo Lytton Casino in the East Bay has enabled it to buy approximately 2,800 acres in Sonoma County, including two vineyards in Alexander Valley.
The tribe, which has 270 adult members, has said its acquisitions are part of a strategy to diversify economically and expand beyond gambling.
The Lytton Pomos own approximately 520 acres in the Windsor area, including some lands they want to have taken into federal trust to build a controversial tribal housing project, as well as potentially a 200-room hotel and 200,000-case winery.
The tribe has been building a road and clearing out some rare manzanita brush on its Annapolis property, to the consternation of some biologists.
The tribal spokesman said the brush clearings have been for fire suppression purposes. He also denied speculation that the Lyttons are considering going into the medical marijuana producing business like some tribes, or that the Lyttons are anticipating opportunities if pot is legalized in California.
“That’s not an issue for this tribe. They are not interested in that, whether it’s legal or not,” Stidham said.
Area residents say the Annapolis land is the site of a historic village of Kashia Pomos, to whom some of the Lyttons are related, although Stidham said he did not want to discuss archaeological evidence that could entice scavenger hunters.
Stidham said the tribe may do “some timber management. It doesn’t mean full-scale harvesting,” and is “not necessarily related to the creation of a vineyard.”
Environmentalists have fought against plans to clear forest lands for vineyards in the coastal hills, which they see as a push into a mostly untilled swath of lands that provide cooler conditions for grapes, especially with the advance of climate change.
The Franciscan soils and temperate coastal climate keep things cool and allow for a long growing season ideal for pinot grapes, “the highest-revenue-producing varietal,” Poehlmann said.
Artesa in 2014 shelved its hotly disputed plans to put vineyards on forest lands the year after a Sonoma County judge ruled that the vineyard project’s environmental studies were flawed.