By BRETT WILKISON
THE PRESS DEMOCRAT
Environmentalists are hailing a court ruling this week that deals a significant setback to a hotly disputed vineyard project in northwestern Sonoma County.
If it stands, the decision could serve as a bulwark against the push of vineyards into a mostly untilled swath of the region’s coast range, blocking grape growers searching for cooler ground for their crops in the advance of climate change.
It wants to clear 154 acres of second- and third-growth redwood and fir trees and former orchard land near Annapolis to grow premium chardonnay and pinot noir grapes.
The project has been on the drawing board for more than a decade as one of several proposals to consider remote North Coast forestland for wine grapes.
Opponents, including environmentalists and several Indian tribes, have objected to the plans, which they say would fragment the largely undeveloped landscape and harm water resources and wildlife. Pomo tribes also fear it could disturb sites once used by their ancestors.
In his final ruling this week, Sonoma County Judge Elliot Daum rejected key parts of the project’s environmental review, siding with most of the claims brought by the environmental groups in their lawsuit.
Representatives for those groups said the court decision lends new strength to their main contention that North Coast forests, and even the previously logged Artesa property, should not serve as the next frontier for the expansion of the region’s dominant wine industry.
“The highest and best use of coastal forests is to remain in their natural condition so they can protect our coastal rivers, support fish and wildlife and combat climate change by sequestering carbon,” Victoria Brandon, chairwoman of the Sierra Club’s Redwood Chapter, said in a statement.
An Artesa spokesman, meanwhile, criticized the decision Friday and slammed the project’s opponents, calling them “obstructionists” opposed to farming on a parcel once partly dedicated to grazing and growing apples.
“We are not giving up,” said Sam Singer, the San Francisco-based spokesman hired by Artesa. He said the company was weighing its options, including an appeal or possibly another round of work on the environmental report.
The other two groups behind the lawsuit are the locally based Friends of the Gualala River and the Center for Biological Diversity, headquartered in Arizona.
Artesa’s vineyard proposal sits in the heart of a hilly range dotted with smaller tracts of wine grapes and orchards. Most of the region was dedicated to commercial timber operations up until recent decades.
While those activities have left scars and imperiled the region’s once bountiful salmon and steelhead runs, if left alone the landscape could bounce back, vineyard opponents claim. They say more wine grapes would make for a permanent transformation for the worse.
Local protests staking that claim have sought to put wine brands in an unflattering spotlight in recent years. A demonstration last year outside the Sonoma County government administration center partly targeted the Artesa project. It featured a man costumed as an 8-foot-tall bottle of “Pinot Egrigio” labeled “Chainsaw Wine.”
“This is a highly unpopular thing with the general public,” said Chris Poehlmann, president of Friends of the Gualala River. The Annapolis-based group has fought against a number of vineyard conversions proposed in the area in recent years.
Artesa project opponents said the court ruling would help them ramp up their pressure on the Napa vintner and its parent company to abandon the project.
Singer, the Artesa spokesman, said that campaign had been ineffective so far and failed to hurt the Artesa brand. He accused opponents of misleading the public by portraying the wooded property as forestland.
“A group of trees does not make a forest,” he said. “If opponents had their way they wouldn’t allow anybody to take down any tree anywhere. Artesa wants to return the property to its original use, which is farming.”
The proposal would set aside about half the 324-acre property to remain in forest. On the other half intended for grapes, logging would remove thousands of trees, including 50- to 75-year-old coast redwoods and Douglas firs, oaks and manzanita bushes.
Artesa bought the property off Annapolis Road in 1999 for $1.7 million. It proposed a smaller vineyard project in 2001 before withdrawing those plans in 2005. The company submitted its current proposal in 2009.
The California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, which approved the project last year, did so only after requiring a full environmental impact report for the vineyard conversion.
Because it is the first forest-to-vineyard project approved after a full EIR, environmental groups across the state and nation are said to be watching the case.
In his ruling, Daum found the project’s environmental report faulty on five of the nine claims put forward by opponents in their lawsuit. The final decision largely followed a tentative ruling the judge made in October.
Most significant, Daum said the environmental review did not adequately study alternatives to the proposed site, including property that is not forested. The report also had inadequate evidence that the acreage to be set aside on the site was sufficient to meet state policy to protect forest and mitigate impacts from its loss, the judge concluded.
Daum also said the report failed to properly address the impact of pesticides and construction noise on neighbors. A conclusion that the project would have no significant contribution to greenhouse gas emissions came “without explanation of any sort,” he said.
Singer, the Artesa spokesman, attacked the ruling Friday, calling the science behind the environmental report “solid.” Any problems with the project were “appealable or amendable,” he said.
“This is one judge. It’s one judge’s opinion, and we don’t agree with it,” he said.
Daum sided with the company and the state on four points. Among those, he agreed that Sonoma County lacked authority over the project because its rules governing timberland conversions came after Artesa’s original application, effectively giving the state exclusive say over the project.
He also said the report had presented sufficient evidence that archeological and cultural resources would not be harmed by the project.
A second lawsuit filed last year by Starcross Community, a neighboring monastic order concerned about noise, has been settled.
For years, the Artesa proposal has been the smaller of two controversial projects seeking to replace former commercial timberland with grapes in the northwestern corner of Sonoma County.
The larger one, dubbed Preservation Ranch, would have cleared nearly 1,800 acres of forest on a roughly 20,000-acre property just to the north.
The plan was scuttled earlier this year when CalPERS, the giant state employees pension fund, sold the property to a national conservation group in a $24.5 million deal backed by $14 million in state and county open space funds.
Together, the two projects drew national media attention and fire from environmentalists and others opposed to cutting trees to make room for wine grapes.
In the aftermath of the Preservation Ranch deal, even local wine industry representatives voiced relief, acknowledging the project forced the industry into the middle of fight it didn’t welcome.
With that proposal now history, critics of the Artesa project said they were prepared to continue their challenge while holding out hope for another conservation coup.
Singer said he could not speculate on whether Artesa would consider the possibility of some type of land deal.
“There’s a lot of background support and depth of support to continue fighting these projects,” said Poehlmann, the Friends of the Gualala River leader. “We are hoping that they (Artesa) have pockets deep enough to do the right thing.”
You can reach Staff Writer Brett Wilkison at 521-5295 or firstname.lastname@example.org.