$24.5 million deal to protect 20,000-acre Sonoma County forest
By BRETT WILKISON / THE PRESS DEMOCRAT
A national conservation group has reached an agreement to buy nearly 20,000 acres of timberland in northwestern Sonoma County, a move that derails the long-disputed, forest-to-vineyards conversion project pushed by CalPERS, the giant state workers pension fund.
The $24.5 million purchase of the so-called Preservation Ranch, to be completed by the end of May, is led by The Conservation Fund, based in Virginia. It would contribute up to $6 million toward the purchase.
Funding partners include the California Coastal Conservancy, which could contribute up to $10 million, Sonoma County’s Agricultural Preservation and Open Space District, which could add up to $4 million to the deal, and the Sonoma Land Trust.
It would be the largest conservation purchase by acreage in county history and one of the largest along the North Coast in years.
“It’s a big, big, big deal,” said Bill Keene, general manager of the county’s Open Space District. The property, located near Annapolis, spans a vast and rugged landscape of second- and third-growth redwood and Douglas fir, oak woodlands and salmon and steelhead streams.
Keene called it “a critical piece of land for us to protect.”
Public access could result from the deal, but the property would remain in private ownership and on the tax roll.
The Conservation Fund owns and manages 55,000 acres of forest in Mendocino County and would use the new property for sustainable timber production and possibly for the sale of carbon credits.
The purchase would eliminate the threat of subdivision for rural estates and commercial vineyard development. It also would put greater focus on forest health and wildlife habitat restoration, said Chris Kelly, California program director for The Conservation Fund.
After the sale, the group would own nearly 75,000 acres on the North Coast — “the largest permanently protected working forest in California,” according to Kelly.
The project pushed by CalPERS called for clearing up to 1,769 acres of the 19,652-acre property for vineyards.
It became one of the hottest land-use fights in Wine Country, sparking national media coverage and a debate about the spread of vineyards into remote North Coast forests. The general issue, and Preservation Ranch in particular, has factored in local elections and triggered county efforts to strengthen local oversight of forest conversions.
The proposal was headed for what was certain to be a bruising process of hearings and public input, including a final say by the county Board of Supervisors and possible court challenges.
The mounting cost of studies — said last year to be more than $2 million — and the risks and controversy associated with the project likely pushed CalPERS to consider other options, sources said.
CalPERS officials declined to comment Tuesday on the sale agreement.
The transaction reflects the growing role of private groups in large deals to protect local open space, especially former commercial forests. Public agencies, while partners in those deals, are increasingly unable or unwilling to buy and manage those lands on their own.
The political ripples of the purchase could bolster the cause of environmental interests, who established a majority recently on the county’s Board of Supervisors. Several environmental leaders on Tuesday greeted news of the closely guarded deal with jubilation.
“Wow,” said Bill Kortum, a former Sonoma County supervisor and veteran advocate for open space and coastal protection. “What better news is there to dance to?”
It also could improve the political prospects of county Supervisor Efren Carrillo, who represents the area and is said to be considering a bid for a seat in the state Legislature. With the sale, he will not have to vote on the controversial Preservation Ranch proposal.
While he never publicly revealed his stance, opponents suspected he favored the project, a position that could have dogged him in any regional campaign. Opponents flooded his office and those of other county representatives with more than 90,000 emails and letters on the issue in recent years.
Several conservation insiders, however, credited Carrillo with being a driving force behind the purchase agreement, which evolved out of talks between CalPERS and The Conservation Fund over the past year.
Carrillo called it a “unique opportunity” that would protect one of the largest single landholdings left in the county and link to other public and private conservation properties in the area.
“This really builds on the work we’ve seen on the North Coast already,” Carrillo said. Asked how it could play into his rumored interest in the Legislature, he said he was still undecided about that “option.”
The Preservation Ranch property includes ancestral grounds used by Pomo tribes, several of which voiced strong opposition to forest clearance for vineyards.
The property previously was held in small ranches and then used by commercial timber outfits before being considered for wine grapes more than a decade ago.
CalPERS, the $253 billion state workers pension fund, has controlled Preservation Ranch for nearly a decade. The ownership was through a Napa-based vineyard development firm that bought the property in 2004 for $28.5 million.
The pension fund severed its ties with the Napa firm in late 2011 but retained control of the land and the project.
Pension officials said in February 2012 that they intended to continue with the land conversion. Along with vineyards, the project would have set aside 15,000 acres for timber operations, dedicated 2,700 acres for a private wildlife preserve and donated 220 acres for a public park expansion.
But work on a draft environmental study slowed last year, with no new funds being allocated by CalPERS to the county for the project, said David Schiltgen, the county planner overseeing Preservation Ranch.
Talks with The Conservation Fund started early last year and led to a purchase agreement in October. The deal was covered under a confidentiality agreement that expired Feb. 18. It kept the deal a little-known secret among a relatively small group of open space officials.
Money from the county’s taxpayer-funded Open Space District would purchase a conservation easement that eliminates development rights on the property. It takes in 160 parcels, about 60 of which would have been open to future development under the CalPERS proposal.
Keene, the Open Space District manager, said an appraisal valued the property at about $26 million, including development potential of about $20 million and timber worth about $6 million. The county contribution, which needs the Board of Supervisors’ approval, of up to $4 million is a “pretty darn good deal,” Keene said.
The Conservation Fund and the Coastal Conservancy are expected to provide up to $16 million while Sonoma Land Trust, the nonprofit group that brokered the most expensive conservation purchase in county history — the $36 million, 5,600-acre Jenner Headlands deal — is set to help raise the remaining funds needed.
“We just think it’s a fantastic outcome,” said Ralph Benson, Sonoma Land Trust’s executive director.
Advocates who have raised concerns about North Coast forest conversions voiced hope Tuesday.
“We’re optimistic for the recovery of the watershed and its signature species” — endangered salmon and threatened steelhead trout — said Chris Poehlmann, president of Friends of the Gualala River.
He said the deal would give the landscape time to heal.
“If you have a broken clock, you don’t throw away any of the parts,” he said. “This would have been a very large part.”
News Researcher Janet Balicki contributed to this report.