Lytton Pomos buy former Artesa land once slated to become vineyards

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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.

An Artesa spokesman insisted the decision to put the property on the market wasn’t related to the court ruling, but was because it wanted to refocus on the Napa Valley, as opposed to the Sonoma property.

The same environmental groups that battled Artesa’s plan also fought against Preservation Ranch, a much larger vineyard conversion near Annapolis. They cheered when the site of nearly 20,000 acres ended up being bought for $24.5 million for conservation purposes.

The hilly range is dotted with smaller tracts of wine grapes and orchards, but environmentalists are wary of more vineyards that draw on the water supply, potentially impact fish and bring commercial activity to the narrow roads.

The approximately 300 acres the tribe bought last year from Artesa are situated on a ridge between Grasshopper Creek and the Wheatfield Fork of the Gualala River, just east of Annapolis.

One of the neighbors is Starcross Monastery, a spiritual, contemplative community that sued Artesa to get the company to abide by county noise ordinances.

Brother Toby McCarroll, head of the ecumenical monastery, said he would reluctantly take action against the tribe if it had plans like Artesa’s to clear trees on a large scale and plant vines.

“Starcross has nothing against vineyards. It’s what impact is it going to have, and what do we end up with?” he said. “We feel we should be a little more vigilant in protecting forests.”

He questioned why the tribe decided to buy the property. “I’m sure it wasn’t a whim,” he said.

More than a year ago, he said, another Lytton attorney contacted the monastery to assure them there would be no forest conversion, vineyards or casino, only sustainable forest management and cutting.

For now, McCarroll said, “we maintain an attitude of vigilant watchfulness.”

You can reach Staff Writer Clark Mason at 521-5214 or On Twitter@clarkmas.

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