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Permit and EIR Killed for Controversial Smaller Cousin of Preservation Ranch

A version of this appeared in the Sonoma County Gazette

By Peter Baye
Annapolis, California

Artesa Winery’s Annapolis vineyard project has apparently hit the wall. Initiated in 2001, in the early years of Preservation Ranch, this smaller cousin actually completed its long, circuitous permit and CEQA process in 2012 after more than a decade of stalls and reverses. But in December 2013, Judge Elliot Daum of Sonoma County Superior Court ruled that the final Environmental Impact Report was flawed, agreeing with some of the main arguments by plaintiffs Friends of the Gualala River, Sierra Club, and Center for Biological Diversity. On Christmas Eve, CAL FIRE sent an official letter to Artesa, instructing them that the EIR’s certification and timber conversion permit were “set aside” (in effect, revoked, invalidated), and further warned them not to conduct any timber operations, and ordered them to “suspend all activity that could result in any change to the environment”.

So, for the time being at least, the Patchett Creek watershed (tributary of the Gualala River Wheatfield Fork) within lands currently owned by Artesa is spared the chainsaw and bulldozer. Cautious breaths of relief are due for many conservationists who have supported or fought the battle against this project since Artesa’s first application to clear-cut the forest in 2001.

This is an important milestone for many reasons. First, following the demise of Preservation Ranch and its miraculous rebirth as The Conservation Fund’s latest major conservation forestry project (“Buckeye Forest” named after one of the other Gualala tributary creek sub-watersheds), the arrest of the Artesa project is a spectacular chapter ending to serve as a deterrent for any would-be vineyard investors and entrepreneurs with ambitions to clear-cut Sonoma County’s coastal forestlands. The combined dead-end precedents of Preservation Ranch and Artesa came after an arduous, unpredictable 12+ year regulatory history fraught with negative publicity and reverses for Artesa.

But Artesa was even more important in some ways than Preservation Ranch as a precedent. Artesa’s vineyard deforestation plan actually was unique: it alone ran the full gauntlet of the regulatory process and courts. Preservation Ranch, despite its more prominent coverage and deep-pockets CalPERS financing, had an aborted regulatory history: it politically imploded (with a modest amount of assistance!) before its draft EIR even made it out the gate. That was a blessing for all Sonoma County residents who didn’t want a long, drawn-out political and legal battle to hang over the fate of the largest single forestland ownership ever proposed for a jigsaw puzzle of agriculture, roads, reservoirs, and mansions.

Though the Artesa project was only a few hundred acres in size, its approval represented a huge risk for a project-by-project, piecemeal of vineyard project development with a settled CEQA formula. It represented a back door for the same kind of forest and watershed loss as the mega-vineyard Preservation Ranch project, but in the form of “death by a thousand vineyard clear-cuts” one by one, in relatively low-cost second-growth timberland. If Artesa had succeeded in obtaining quick, painless, uncontroversial approval of its Environmental Impact Report and permits, it would have established attractive formula for copycat vineyard entrepreneurs who paint themselves Green and laud themselves as “sustainable”, while converting coastal Sonoma County forestlands and grasslands into more thirsty vineyards with reservoirs above steelhead spawning streams.

The Patchett Creek watershed includes major portions of one of the last undeveloped “flat top ridges” in Annapolis that hasn’t fallen completely to vineyards. It has a rich network of Pomo cultural and archaeological sites, rare plants, manzanita groves, pockets of old-growth and mature redwoods, creek pools with steelhead, newts, and salamanders, a giant Garry oak, sedge beds, and remnants of some of Annapolis’ last historical apple orchards.

The fate of the land still hangs in the balance. Friends of the Gualala River has mounted a daunting social media campaign, heavy on facts that rebut absurd claims by Artesa’s imaginative PR crisis manager, Sam Singer (including the whopper that there is “no forest” at Artesa’s parcels because it was clear-cut years ago!…contradicting Artesa’s own EIR and anyone who has access to Google Earth!). No doubt Artesa has been stung by the unwelcome and unflattering national and international media attention, tens of thousands of online petitioners, and a lot of indignant email, Facebook, and Twitter commentary. Artesa knows well that proceeding with the project against all odds will come at ever steeper and more treacherous costs, risks, and uncertainty that would make any sober investor nauseous.