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Conservationists, grape growers argue over conversion regulations

Friday, April 22, 2005

By SPENCER SOPER
THE PRESS DEMOCRAT

Environmentalists squared off with grape growers Thursday over proposed
regulations that could make it more difficult to convert redwood and
Douglas fir forests in Sonoma County to vineyards and other uses.

The debate played out in a four-hour hearing of the Sonoma County
Planning Commission that drew about 50 people, including
environmentalists with green paper trees taped to their shirts.

"The public wants our Redwood Empire forests to remain forests," said
Margaret Pennington, chairwoman of the local chapter of the Sierra Club,
who delivered 1,000 postcards to the Planning Commission supporting new
regulations.

But some farmers and property owners said state laws already provide
adequate protection for the county's timberlands and new regulations
would infringe on their property rights.

"I am concerned about the erosion of my ability to farm my land," said
Nick Peay, a grape grower who owns 280acres in Annapolis.

The Planning Commission did not take action and continued the matter to
May 12. County supervisors, who have the ultimate say on the matter, are
scheduled to discuss it this summer.

The county is considering a pioneering ordinance to discourage the
conversion of timberlands to other uses, which are ordinarily regulated
by the state Department of Forestry and Fire Protection.

Timberlands make up about one-fourth of the county, or 230,000 acres.
Since 1989, the department of forestry has approved 22 timber
conversions in Sonoma County that have eliminated less of 1,000 acres of
woodlands, or less than 0.5 percent of the county's overall timberlands.

Most of the conversions were for vineyards in the northwest corner of
the county, raising concerns from environmentalists about erosion and
degradation of watersheds critical to endangered fish.

The proposed regulations follow the sale of 19,000 acres of coastal
hills near Annapolis to Napa-based Premier Pacific Vineyards, which
intends to turn 1,900 acres of timberland into vineyards while
restocking the rest of the property that has been logged.

Quinn Thompson, a manager with the proposed Preservation Ranch project,
said allowing the conversion of 10 percent of the property will pay for
extensive forest restoration on the remaining 90 percent.

Skip Spaulding, an attorney representing Preservation Ranch, said some
of the proposed regulations would conflict with state law that gives the
department of forestry jurisdiction over timber conversions.

The county has identified several options to regulate conversions,
including banning them altogether or imposing a "no net loss" rule that
would require a timber conversion applicant to restock denuded forests
elsewhere.

Some environmentalists questioned the validity of that option, saying
saplings planted to replace mature trees would take 50 to 70 years to
mature.


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