Every folding chair in the room was filled while many people stood along the walls or leaned in through the open windows of the Native Sons Hall in St. Helena during last Thursday’s town hall meeting, sponsored by Napa Vision 2050.
The question the organizers asked was “Whose valley is this?” while seeking to stem “the diminishing quality of local life in these troubling, touristy, traffic-filled times.”
Napa Vision 2050 is a volunteer grassroots organization whose mission, according to its website, is to advocate for the health, safety, and welfare of the Napa Community. Daniel Mufson, the president of the organization, was on hand to familiarize the crowd with its purpose.
Mufson focused on the growth of tourism in the Ag Preserve with its concurrent traffic congestion, the number of new winery permits issued by the county supervisors, the uptick in hotel accommodations, and the number of rental and second homes that he said, “are changing the fabric of communities in the valley.” All of these trends are severely affecting the quality of life in the Napa Valley, he said, degrading the ecology upon which the Ag Preserve relies. In the meantime, despite the economic re-orientation of the valley towards tourism, he said, the county remains with a poverty rate of 25 percent.
“Tourism is a devil’s bargain,” he said. That, he believes, is one of the challenges that Napa Vision 2050 is trying to address.
Mufson’s demeanor was low key and friendly, but it was offset by the PowerPoint presentation that filled the screen behind him, asking the rhetorical questions: “Whose valley is this?” and “Who is in charge?” As the meeting progressed, the audience seemed to be warming to the same questions.
In what Mufson termed “positive news” he announced three county-wide initiatives to the audience.
According to Mufson, the Palmaz proposal for private heliport on Mt. George in Napa had just been denied by the county supervisors. The audience immediately applauded.
Mufson then said that two other initiatives were expected to qualify for the 2018 ballot: one that would permanently ban heliport construction in the county, another that would save local threatened oak woodlands, and a third initiative relating to the plight of the Blakeley Construction Company in Calistoga. He then handed the microphone to Mike Hackett of Save Rural Angwin.
Hackett moderated a “listening opportunity,” and members of the audience were quick to line up to give their perspectives on traffic, tourism, wineries, water, wildlife, woodlands and more.
Some individuals lamented the growth of second homes and “party rentals” that were impacting their neighborhoods. Others talked about how the wineries’ marketing models – using event centers to draw in tourists — had created unsustainable traffic conditions.
Some expressed their dismay that wineries that exceeded their use permits – or hotels which sought post-construction permits for added accommodations — had not been heavily fined. Instead, these audience members said, they were given retroactive permissions or were allowed to renege on previous affordable housing promises.
One remedy suggested was a levy on second homes, with assessment fees to curb the rise of what some called “neighborhood destroying” trends in the city. Another said that new construction should be assessed “realistic fees” to fully fund affordable housing.
Other remedies included the implementation of a toll road into town; a multi-level parking facility for visitors; a formal moratorium on growth in the valley; and a proposal to spread the growth of the wine industry southwards into Vallejo.
On the other side of the tourism issue, some members of the audience reminded that the real estate market in the valley – with high prices for land, homes, and rental space – was a direct result of the wine industry’s success, and that those towns that embraced the “reality” of the market would be the survivors in a valley that was rapidly being driven into tourism’s embrace.
Residents remarked over and over that – regardless of the existing rules and regulations that now exist in the valley – there is little or no enforcement with few funds available to either county or city officials to implement enforcement, and little transparency in how funds are allocated to deal with traffic and tourism.
The meeting lasted more than two hours. The gathering ended with a recommendation from the organizers for the public to continue to attend public meetings, to connect with other organizations like Napa Vision 2050, and to elect supervisors “who listen to their constituents rather than their donors.”