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Supervisor proposes limiting grape expansion
Plans to convert timberland to vineyards spur debate


Concerned 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.

The 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 second time.

Although 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.

The 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.

Grape 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.

Still, Reilly believes it is time for the county to consider new timber conversion rules.

"People should not be cutting down redwoods to plant vineyards," said Reilly, whose district includes most of the Sonoma County coast from Bodega Bay northward.

"It's 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."

While 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.

Under 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.

Greg 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.

"It's 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."

County 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.

Reilly 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.

Nick 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.

"Most 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.

"I 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."

Toben 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 counties.

"There 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."

The 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.

A 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.

"I really don't have a feel for how many conversions are actually taking place," said Supervisor Tim Smith.

"I'm willing to look at it but, as always, I want to be very careful about legislating solutions when other options might work better."

You can reach Staff Writer Tom Chorneau at 521-5214 or


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