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.

The decision is likely to spark outrage from environmentalists, who have accused the state of lax oversight on timber conversions. Several groups have vowed to challenge the project in court.

The Sonoma County Winegrape Commission, the largest local industry group, has not taken a stance on the project.

Snyder defended the decision, saying Artesa had substantially modified the project, downsizing it by 19 vineyard acres and setting aside more land to protect rare plants, wildlife habitat and archeological sites while adding measures to address noise and other concerns.

"They have gone through the process," he said. "At that point in time, for us to say we're not going to approve your project because we just don't like it, that would be inconsistent with state law. It's not a popularity contest."

Though expected, news of the pending approval still was a blow to Starcross leaders. The group has devoted much of its work to caring for children born with AIDS in the U.S. and abroad. At peak times of the year the retreat is home to about 20 people. Monastery leaders say their need for quiet has been overlooked.

"We've been kind of ignored through this whole process," said McCarroll, 81, the Starcross prior, who is widely known as Brother Toby.

Despite an assertion by Artesa consultants in the final environmental report, the company and Starcross have not reached agreement on additional noise safeguards, McCarroll said.

He said a proposed one-acre equipment yard appears likely to pose an impact on Starcross' chapel, though it is about 2,000 feet away and has been moved once before at the monastery's behest.

Requests for additional safeguards beyond those already spelled out in the environmental report have gone unanswered, McCarroll said.

Cal Fire officials said the level of noise safeguards appears sufficient. They have ordered Artesa to remove language about the deal with Starcross from the final environmental report.

Sam Singer, the Artesa spokesman, said the company thought it had an agreement with Starcross on the noise issue, which he called a "minor" one in the context of the proposal. He said talks with concerned neighbors, including Starcross, were ongoing.

Starcross leaders said they have not heard from Artesa officials for two weeks.

David Gilbreth, a Napa attorney said to be representing the company in those talks, did not return calls for comment.

Kashia leaders, meanwhile, say they plan to press their case if their concerns are not addressed.

"We're still going through the motions," Emilio Valencia, the tribal chairman, said of talks with Artesa about archeological safeguards. "If they're not willing to take our concerns into consideration then its full-out opposition."

The environmental foes vowing a legal challenge say the project could harm water quality and wildlife, including struggling salmon and steelhead stocks in the Gualala River watershed.

Outside of the courtroom, the project faces increasing political pressure. Though Artesa representatives have sought to dismiss the pairing, their proposal, together with the larger CalPERS proposal, called Preservation Ranch, has 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.

State politicians and candidates for local office have waded into the fray. State Sen. Noreen Evans and Assemblyman Wes Chesbro, both North Coast Democrats, have contacted Cal Fire with concerns about the project. Evans asked that any decision be delayed to allow more tribal input and the implementation of new county vineyard erosion rules that address tree removal on slopes and ridgetops.

County officials have said Artesa would be subject to the rules.

Efren Carrillo, the Board of Supervisors member who represents west Sonoma County and whose stance on timber conversions has been questioned, also has taken aim at Cal Fire, criticizing its approval process and calling for another local hearing on the project. The last one was in 2009.

"I think it's prudent for the lead agency (Cal Fire) to show diligence in addressing the issues that have been raised," Carrillo said. "I'm calling out the process."

Two opponents in Carrillo's re-election bid, Veronica Jacobi and Ernie Carpenter, have both come out against timber-to-vineyard conversions. Carpenter in particular has sought to back away from his role as an advisor to a timber outfit that proposed a large conversion project on part of the property now owned by CalPERS.

Singer, the Artesa spokesman, said the remaining hurdles, including a possible court challenge, were expected.

"Artesa has done everything to meet, and, in many cases exceed, all the requirements for this project. As everyone knows in California, that doesn't mean someone won't step up and sue with the most minor of complaints," he said in an email.

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.

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