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Sweeping proposal favors forests over vines
Panel urges ban on large-scale clearing to plant grapes

July 21, 2003


Vineyards 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.

The 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 against neighbor.

"It's 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."

Not 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 product."

A 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."

The 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.

"I 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.

Applications 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.

"Timber 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 said.
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.

Vineyards 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.

Vintners 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 said.
"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," he said.

The 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.

Supervisor Mike Reilly, whose west county district encompasses most of the planned conversions, said he supported the anti-conversion policy.
"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 attorney.

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 near Annapolis.
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 788 acres.
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

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