proposal favors forests over vines
Panel urges ban on large-scale clearing to plant grapes
CAROL BENFELL THE PRESS DEMOCRAT
would be banned on hundreds of thousands of acres of Sonoma
County timberland in a proposed change to the county's planning
blueprint that would be a victory for trees over grapes, and
preservationists over growers.
It comes because of concern over the increasing pace of converting
tree-covered hillsides to vineyards and the potential impact
of sediment and herbicide runoffs into nearby streams and rivers.
The proposal would still allow vineyards on timber parcels of
3 acres or less.
issue is a hot-button topic in western Sonoma County, where
the climate on coastal hills and the fertile soil can grow some
of the world's finest pinot noir grapes.
It pits private property rights against the protection of natural
resources, forest interests against farms, and in the Annapolis
area where most conversions are taking place, pitting neighbor
an outrage to take somebody's property away like that,"
said Cliff Putnam, who is planting 39 acres in vineyard on his
property near Annapolis. "This is Sonoma County -- this
is the epicenter of the world's premium wines."
so, said Chris Poehlmann, an Annapolis resident who has organized
a grass-roots effort to protect forests because of their beneficial
effects on rivers and the water supply.
"It would be one thing if national security was at stake,
but we're talking about a recreational food item," Poehlmann
said. "The forest is in jeopardy from entrepreneurs who
would like to cut it down and replace it with a pretty superfluous
citizens committee advising Sonoma County supervisors on revisions
to the general plan, the county blueprint for land use, made
its recommendation to the Board of Supervisors last week.
Conversions of more than three acres of timberland to grapes
would be banned on 194,000 acres that grow or have historically
grown Douglas fir or redwood forests. That is 84 percent of
the county's 230,000 acres of timberland.
"Of all the issues we encountered, this seemed to have
the most widely expressed views," said Dan Fein, a member
of the committee that made the recommendation. "There was
overwhelming public opposition to conversion and support for
the option we chose."
board must approve the policy recommendation and win state Forestry
Department approval before it can take effect.
The normally dry subject of converting timberland to vineyard
caught fire in 1999 when Willits lumberman Rich Padula and a
partner proposed converting some 10,000 acres of Sonoma and
Mendocino county ridgetops to vineyards.
The project, the largest single vineyard planting ever proposed
on the North Coast, fizzled at least temporarily when one of
the partners backed out earlier this year.
But the specter of a checkerboard of vineyard-studded mountain
tops galvanized the 15-member citizens committee into action,
said David Schiltgen, the county planner who worked with them
on the conversion issue.
think they wanted to have the rules in place before we start
seeing a huge increase in conversions," Schiltgen said.
Critics say the policy is overkill. They argue that only a small
amount of timberland has ever been converted to grapes, and
that few plantings will occur in the foreseeable future because
of the current wine grape glut.
During the past 13 years, 788 acres of timber land have been
converted to vineyard, according to Forestry Department figures.
That's less than 0.5 percent of the county's estimated 230,000
acres of timber.
"So where's the problem?" asked Lex McCorvey, executive
director of the Farm Bureau, which opposes the committee recommendation.
"There has been only a minuscule amount of conversions.
Look at the oversupply and overproduction of grapes. How many
people are going to go through with a great deal of planting?"
Nick Frey, executive director of the Sonoma County Grapegrowers
Association, said that pinot noir plantings on coastal hills
already have outstripped the market.
"We have a lot of pinot noir in production, enough to carry
us for the 20-year time frame of the general plan," Frey
said. "Individuals may have interest in new plantings on
coastal ridges, but there is little business rationale for it."
Nevertheless, the number of applications to log forests for
grapes is increasing rapidly, according to state figures.
are pending to convert 337 acres of timberland to vineyard --
five times the amount logged in all of 2002. "A very small
number of acres have been converted, but it seems like a geometrically
accelerating trend," Fein said.
Timber is losing out to vineyards partly because of competition
from cheaper Canadian lumber and also because there is so much
more potential profit in grapes.
Putnam, for example, said he could make $10,500 an acre annually
on his 39 acres once the vines are bearing -- perhaps as much
as $400,000 a year.
In timber -- his property isn't prime timber land -- he figures
he could make about $90,000 every 40 to 50 years.
is a one-shot thing for people like me," Putnam said. "The
only people who can make it in timber are large timber companies,
who think in terms of decades."
But there are other things to consider besides profit, conservationists
Peter Ashcroft, conservation chairman for the Redwood chapter
of the Sierra Club, said the impact of vineyards reaches far
beyond the acreage involved.
Sediment and herbicides from vineyards enter the streams and
rivers, compromising drinking water quality as well as the spawning
grounds of endangered salmon species, Ashcroft said.
also bring an increase in traffic, heavy grading that changes
the terrain and construction of reservoirs that trap rainwater
and runoff and may diminish stream flow, Ashcroft said. "How
we treat the forests has direct implications for the health
of rivers," Ashcroft said. Similar public concern about
the quality of water has arisen in Napa County, which is working
with Forestry Department staff to develop a local set of forestry
rules to protect the watershed, said Patrick Lowe, deputy director
of the Conservation, Development and Planning department.
"The public thinks either the county or the state is not
doing its job. It's a concern for them," Lowe said.
defend their planting practices and say they're being stereotyped.
Mike Kenton, president of Napa-based Artesa winery, which hopes
to convert 105 acres near Annapolis, said the company is going
the extra mile to preserve the environment and mitigate any
impacts of its vineyards.
He said he wants his proposal to be judged on its merits, not
subject to a blanket prohibition. "I recognize and agree
that there must be limits. But safeguards and bureaucratic measures
are in place now, that are more than sufficient," Kenton
"What I see is a NIMBY attitude. They don't care how well
you do, how much diligence you put in or how much you preserve
for nature. They just don't want a blade of grass touched,"
committee's recommendation and other general plan policy revisions
are expected to go to the Planning Commission and the Board
of Supervisors this fall.
Several supervisors said they couldn't comment on the recommendation
because they hadn't seen it.
Mike Reilly, whose west county district encompasses most of
the planned conversions, said he supported the anti-conversion
"It makes no sense to permanently remove redwood forests
to plant grapes," he said. "There's plenty of room
for both of them."
Even if supervisors approve the new policy, the state Department
of Forestry, which nixed a similar policy in Nevada County in
the early 1990s, is reserving its right to look at the final
product and take the county to court.
"We'd have to hash it out and see if it makes inroads on
our statutory authority or not," said Bruce Crane, a CDF
What is the issue?
Approximately 788 acres of timber land have been converted to
vineyards in the past 13 years. Applications are pending to
convert another 337 acres, most of them on the coastal hills
What is happening?
A 15-member citizens advisory committee is recommending that
the Sonoma County Board of Supervisors adopt a policy banning
large-scale conversions of timber lands to vineyards.
How much land is involved?
Approximately 194,000 acres of county land now zoned for rural
residential or timber production.
What is the next step?
The recommendation will go to public hearings before the Planning
Commission and the Board of Supervisors.
When could it take effect?
Uncertain. The Board would have to enact zoning ordinances in
addition to adopting the policy. The Department of Forestry
might oppose the ordinances and take the county to court.
The citizens advisory committee to the general plan is recommending
that forests be protected and that large conversions of timberland
to vineyard be banned.
Timberland is defined as land that is growing or has in the
past grown redwoods or Douglas fir. The ordinance includes timberland
in rural residential and timber production zones.
The committee is recommending a policy that would:
Ban conversions larger than 3 acres in size. Slightly more than
half of the timber land converted to vineyards in the past 13
years has been in large parcels, 364 acres out of a total of
Allow property owners to log as dictated by the state Department
of Forestry, so long as they intend to keep their land in timber.
Permit large scale conversions for uses other than vineyards
if they provide a public benefit, such as the water reservoir
near Sea Ranch.
You can reach Staff Writer Carol Benfell at 521-5259 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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