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Timberland-to-vineyard rules before supervisors
Hearing weighs controversial issue affecting 200,000 acres

Dec 13, 2005


Controversial rules governing the process for changing timberland into vineyards go before Sonoma County supervisors today in what's likely to lead to a new and more sharply focused fight over the pace of conversions.

For more than three years, conversion of timberland into vineyards has been a simmering issue between environmentalists who want them halted and the wine industry that sees profits in the hills of northwestern Sonoma County.

At issue is an estimated 200,000 acres of timberland that, until now, has had little land use scrutiny because the land has been more valuable in wood products than in wine grapes.

However, rising land costs and consumer demand for premium grapes have prompted developers to cast an eye toward the woodlands north of Guerneville between Highway 101 and the coast.

In a report outlining proposed rules, officials in the Permit and Resource Management Department said county supervisors must resolve the central question whether vineyards will be permitted in "timberland production" zones that also fall under state forestry regulations.

The report from county planning officials acknowledges they have only rough estimates of timberland acreage that will come under an ordinance. The amount in these "rural resource" zones where timber conversion rules will apply has been estimated between 194,000 and 230,000 acres.

About 80,000 of those acres are located in timberland production areas where state forestry rules permit activities such as livestock grazing because they are compatible with tree growing and harvesting. These timberland production areas are defined by property owners seeking lucrative tax breaks for maintaining woodlands, and the new county zoning rules would apply on almost 96 percent of these areas.

"Unlike grazing, vineyards, orchards and other agricultural cultivation typically require that the timber be removed," David Schiltgen of the Permit and Resource Management Department said.

He said if state law requires a conversion permit, "these uses would inhibit the growing and harvesting of timber and thus would not meet the general definition of compatible use."

Leaders of several environmental groups Monday complained that proposed rules do not clearly state that a rezoning permit from the county and a timberland conversion permit from the state will be necessary in these timber production zones.

"We are hoping the language is worked out so the loopholes are closed," said Craig Litwin, co-director of Conservation Action.

Officials with the Sierra Club also said they object to the proposed 2-for-1 acre mitigation ratio and 25-foot setback requirement, calling them inadequate.

Bob Anderson, executive director of United Wine Growers of Sonoma County, said his group would review timberland conversion proposals, but it was too early to comment because debate on specific regulations is just starting.

County supervisors will hold a hearing on proposed timberland conversion rules at 2:15 p.m. today at the county administration building. County attorneys are advising supervisors to send the proposals back to the planning commission for review and reopening of public comment.

Proposed Timber Conversion Rules:
Prohibits vineyards on about 4 percent of county timberland considered host to oldest growth.

Requires county use permit in about 120,000 acres of rural zones.

May require county use permit on 80,000 timberland acres in zones designated by state forestry department.

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