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Vision for coastal ridge clouded

May 29, 2004


A 19,000-acre swath of land along the Sonoma County coastal mountains has a new owner, who said he plans to grow organic grapes, log sustainably and donate the rest of the property for open space. Premier Pacific Vineyards, a Napa-based winery and vineyard investment company, paid roughly $28.5 million for the 30 square miles, which stretch from Sea Ranch to the Mendocino County line.

Managing partner William Hill, 61, said he wants to be a good steward for the land and leave an environmental legacy for Sonoma County when he retires.
"I can't think of anything better to look back on in my life, in my business career, than if this works out and we have created a stable, sustainable set of circumstances in which this property is protected forever and yet provides a livelihood for local people forever," Hill said.
But environmentalists, local residents and county officials, who watched while a previous owner proposed to log 10,000 acres of redwood and Douglas fir for vineyards, remain skeptical. They also say they will oppose any attempt by Hill to convert Sonoma County forests to vineyards.

"It's pretty hard to criticize someone donating something to be forever wild, but I'd like to see the fine print," said Peter Ashcroft, leader of the Sonoma group of the Sierra Club. "I'd invite him to eschew timber conversions and get behind the campaign to prevent conversion of Sonoma County forests to vineyards. That would be a great way to demonstrate his sincerity," Ashcroft said.
Premier Pacific Vineyards, formed in 1998, develops high-end vineyards for private and institutional investors.

In addition to its newest purchase, the partnership owns 12 vineyards in Napa and Mendocino counties and in Oregon's Willamette Valley.
Premier Pacific bought the 19,000 acres in Sonoma County last month from Willits timberman Rich Padula, who raised environmental ire in the 1990s when he proposed logging and planting vineyards on 10,000 of the more than 58,000 acres he owned in Mendocino and Sonoma counties. Since then, the property has changed hands several times. Two years ago, Padula attempted to form a joint venture with Premier Pacific and others to buy it back, proposing to log 5,000 acres and convert the land to vineyards. But Premier Pacific withdrew. "We felt that the acres we ought to try to develop in vineyards were a significantly smaller number than Padula wanted to do, and that the proposal made to us did not give us enough control over other environmental practices, such as stream setback and timber practices," Hill said.
Hill intends to begin growing pinot noir and cabernet grapes on 500 acres of old orchard and pastureland as soon as practicable. He said no decision has been made on whether to convert timberland to vineyards or how much acreage might be converted. "At the end of the day, we want to say that we're farming a little of it and logging a little of it, but that we've set aside areas that won't be cut and done stream setbacks," Hill said.

West county Supervisor Mike Reilly said he intends to push for a countywide ban on conversions of timberland to vineyards that would take effect by year's end and preclude Hill from growing grapes on more than the 500 already-farmed acres.
A citizens advisory committee recommended the ban last year -- a reaction to Padula's plan to log 5,000 acres -- as part of the county's general plan update. But Reilly now wants to move the prohibition ahead quickly as a separate item.
"This land has always been predominantly commercial timberland," Reilly said. "If it's the intention of the new owners to only farm those lands outside of commercial stands, I have no problem with that. If the intention is to permanently remove redwood forest to plant grapes, I'm going to oppose it."
An outright ban on conversion to grapes or other crops is not supported by all, however.

You have to consider different factors," said county Supervisor Paul Kelley, who represents the Fourth District. "There are instances where converting timberland to other agricultural uses such as vineyards would be positive." He noted that there are different areas of the county where timber is on flatlands. Converting some of that land to agricultural uses could sustain the long-term character of the area, as opposed to selective cutting or even potential development of the land, Kelley said.

Hill's 19,000 acres nearly surround the tiny town of Annapolis, which has become one of the coastal "hot spots" for growing premier pinot noir grapes and for conversions of forests to vineyards. Some 230 acres of Annapolis ridge tops have been converted to vineyards or are included in applications for vineyard development.
Residents in the remote area are banding together to oppose any further loss of forest. They also are concerned about increases in traffic and water use, and the potential for pollution of the Gualala River from vineyard chemicals and sediment.
"How many conversions can you do before you do harm?" asked Chris Poehlmann, a spokesman for the grass-roots Coastal Forest Alliance. "The Department of Forestry is approving conversions with no end in sight, and as long as that happens, any conversion will be viewed as negative."

Kelley said controls are in place offering significant control over any conversion. A timber harvest plan must pass through several agencies, including the Department of Fish and Game and regional water quality control boards. Land ordinances regulating erosion also are considered before approvals are granted for conversion to vineyard land.

Some 800 acres of Sonoma County's 194,000 acres of timberland have been converted to grapes in the past 15 years, according to the state Department of Forestry.

You can reach Staff Writer Carol Benfell at 521-5259 or

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