proposes limiting grape expansion
Plans to convert timberland to vineyards spur debate
By TOM CHORNEAU / THE PRESS DEMOCRAT / December 23, 2002
that too many prized redwoods are being lost to vineyards, Sonoma
County Supervisor Mike Reilly is proposing new regulations that
would prohibit conversion of timberland to grapes in large tracts
of the rural countryside.
idea, which so far has received a lukewarm response from his
board colleagues, will include the protections in the county's
general plan, the document that guides development decisions
in the unincorporated areas and is now being updated for the
oversight of timber harvests is largely a function of state
government, officials say county supervisors have some general
plan authority to regulate the conversion of timberland to other
uses, including grape growing.
proposal comes as welcome news to environmentalists and homeowners
in the coastal foothills who have grown increasingly anxious
since the wine industry's recent discovery that premium pinot
noir grapes grow especially well high in the coastal range because
of the soil and climate.
growers already face the potential of a multitude of new regulations
as part of the new general plan and are not happy about the
prospects of yet another.
Reilly believes it is time for the county to consider new timber
should not be cutting down redwoods to plant vineyards,"
said Reilly, whose district includes most of the Sonoma County
coast from Bodega Bay northward.
a tremendous mistake for the wine industry to cut these trees,
and I'm sure many of them wish this wasn't happening. But it
is, even with the glut of grapes on the market. I hear all the
time about new proposals to convert forest land to pinot noir,
and we should be looking proactively at it."
a large percentage of rural Sonoma County is covered by dense
forest, state law only regulates the harvesting of commercial
timber, defined in Sonoma County as redwoods and Douglas fir.
current rules, a landowner who wants to cut down redwoods or
Douglas fir to make room for a vineyard must obtain a permit
from the California Department of Forestry. The state requires
an evaluation of environmental impacts caused by the conversion,
but permission is almost always granted.
Carr, head of the county's zoning division, said the supervisors
could have a far greater say in timber conversions simply by
including language in the general plan regulating timber conversions
in certain parts of the county.
not really something that has been considered before because
until recently it hasn't been a problem," he said. "But
if the board wanted to, they could prohibit cutting down commercial
timber for agricultural purposes. It's a policy question."
records show that only a small percentage of the coastal timber
range has been converted to grapes, with much of that coming
in the last four years. It is estimated that 375,000 acres in
Sonoma County are capable of growing redwoods and only about
725 acres of that total has been converted to grapes, according
to the state.
and others say the issue is future conversions. They point to
proposals in the past three years that would turn thousands
of coastal forests into vineyards.
Frey, executive director of the Sonoma County Grape Growers
Association, said he is skeptical that the market could handle
many more pinot noir grapes, and thus, he questions the need
for more regulation.
of the time, when they plant out on the coast, very little of
the land ends up actually being used for grapes," he said.
"On average I think 10 to 20 percent of a property might
be cleared and planted, and the rest of it stays in habitat.
think you've got to ask yourself if there's really a problem
here," he said. "With the way the market is, I don't
think you are going to see much more pinot planted anytime soon.
It just doesn't make sense."
Dilworth, program manager for Town Hall Coalition, a west county
environmental group, said he has heard of plans to convert tens
of thousands of coastal acres to grapes in Sonoma and Mendocino
hasn't been that many, but there are huge future plans for this
part of the coast," he said. "It's really important
that before any more land is converted that we have the tools
available to evaluate the cumulative impacts."
general plan update has been under way for more than a year
and it is expected to be at least another year before the new
plan is adopted. Reilly said he wants the proposed timber conversion
regulations to be considered along with the long list of other
proposed changes in the upcoming months.
survey of Reilly's colleagues on the board found little support
for his idea but several board members said they are interested
in hearing more about the concept.
really don't have a feel for how many conversions are actually
taking place," said Supervisor Tim Smith.
willing to look at it but, as always, I want to be very careful
about legislating solutions when other options might work better."
can reach Staff Writer Tom Chorneau at 521-5214 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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