By BRETT WILKISON
THE PRESS DEMOCRAT
Three environmental groups sued the state and a Spanish wine conglomerate on Thursday over approval of a hotly disputed vineyard project in northwest Sonoma County.
The groups oppose plans by Artesa Vineyards and Winery of Napa, owned by the Spanish wine giant Grupo Codorniu, to clear about 150 acres of second-growth forest and former orchard land outside of Annapolis to grow chardonnay and pinot noir grapes.
The project, on the drawing board for more than a decade and under state review since 2009, was approved by state forestry officials in May over the objections of environmental interests and several Indian tribes.
Starcross Community, a neighboring monastic order which opposed elements of the vineyard plan, also filed a lawsuit Thursday in Sonoma County Superior Court.
The environmental challenge, brought by Friends of the Gualala River, the Sierra Club and the Center for Biological Diversity, a national organization with offices in San Francisco, seeks to set aside the state approval and halt all work on the project.
They claim Cal Fire, the state forestry agency, failed to properly assess the project’s impacts on water quality and wildlife, including struggling steelhead and salmon stocks in the Gualala River.
The groups also claim safeguards to prevent such damage were not sufficient and alternatives to the project were not adequately addressed in the state’s review.
“We intend to draw a line to stop further destruction of redwood forests and salmon streams for more acres of grapes,” Chris Poehlmann, president of Friends of the Gualala River, said in a statement.
State forestry officials who were reviewing the suit Thursday defended their decision, with a Cal Fire spokeswoman calling the agency’s process “thorough and deliberative.”
Sam Singer, a spokesman for Artesa, said the company was “confident that our environmental preservation work, which has won the state’s approval, will stand up in court.”
The lawsuit by Starcross monastery would also seek to halt the project. Their concerns are mainly with noise, water supply and traffic impacts.
“They (Artesa) just wouldn’t cooperate in the process. We didn’t have a choice,” said Brother Tolbert McCarroll, one of a trio of lay Catholic monks who founded the small monastery, located on 115 acres just north of the 324-acre Artesa property off Annapolis Road.
Singer, in response, said Artesa had sought to address the order’s concerns.
“We respect our neighbors,” he said. “But we believe their complaint is wrong and many of the issues it raises are answered in our environmental impact report.”
The legal battles, which were forecast following the state’s approval last month, may escalate. A coalition of Indian tribes including the Kashia Pomo, whose ancestral lands encompass the region, is also said to be considering legal action over concerns about damage to archaeological resources in the area.
An attorney representing the coalition did not return a phone call Thursday.
The Artesa project is the smaller of two separate vineyard proposals that would clear forestland for wine grapes in a remote corner of northwestern Sonoma County. The second plan, being advanced by the state pension giant CalPERS, would clear up 1,769 acres over 19,652 acres. It is under county-led review, with a draft environmental impact report expected out this year.
Both projects have drawn fire from environmentalists nationwide and others opposed to cutting trees to make room for wine grapes.
In approving the Artesa project, state officials said Artesa had substantially modified its proposal, downsizing the project by 19 acres of vineyard and setting aside more land to protect rare plants, wildlife habitat and archeological sites while adding measures to address noise and other concerns.
“They have gone through the process,” Bill Snyder, a deputy director for Cal Fire, said in May. “At that point in time, for us to say we’re not going to approve your project because we just don’t like it, that would be inconsistent with state law. It’s not a popularity contest.”
Opponents say sacrificing forestland, even second-growth forestland, to grow wine grapes does not make economic sense and will do lasting damage to the environment.
“Turning redwood stands into vineyards will increase greenhouse gas emissions and harm stream flows, water quality and wildlife,” said Justin Augustine, a staff attorney at the Center for Biological Diversity.
The proposal would clear 50- to 75-year-old coast redwood and Douglas fir, oaks and manzanita bushes for a total vineyard area of 146 acres, with 116 acres to be planted in grapes and the remainder taken up by roads, a nine-acre reservoir and a one-acre equipment yard.
Logging for the project is subject to two other regulatory hurdles — approval of a state timber harvest plan, seen as a fairly routine step after last month’s approval of Artesa’s timber-conversion plan, and a go-ahead from county officials under recently revised vineyard erosion rules. Artesa representatives said the company is following through with both steps and has not begun ground work yet.
Artesa bought the property in 1999 for $1.7 million and proposed a smaller vineyard project in 2001 before withdrawing those plans in 2005. The company submitted its current proposal in 2009.