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Nicol and Antonio Sanchez started their own business, Napa Paw Spa. Here, Antonio grooms Chapo, a bulldog.

Oak woodland initiative backers shooting for Napa County's June ballot

Supporters of a watershed protection initiative are gathering signatures to place their measure on the June 5 ballot, even as segments of the wine industry prepare to oppose it.

The backers have a Dec. 5 deadline to gather about 3,800 signatures from registered, local voters to qualify the measure for the ballot. To create a cushion, they are aiming for more than 6,000 signatures.

“Let’s let the voters decide,” said Angwin resident Mike Hackett, who is a measure co-author.

“The earth does need a lighter touch,” said rural resident Jim Wilson, also a co-author.

At issue is creating new vineyards and other development in the agricultural watershed zoning district, which consists mostly of local hills and mountains, though it also includes the Carneros region. The zoning district does not include the Napa Valley floor.

The measure would set a limit of 795 acres of additional oak woodlands to be removed in the agricultural watershed. Beyond that, property owners wanting to remove oak woodlands would have to obtain a county permit.

The county could issue permits only for certain circumstances. Opponents say the result would be basically banning hillside vineyard development in the agricultural watershed.

Hackett and Wilson have said the 795-acre oak removal limit is based on the county’s general plan that lasts through 2030. The goal was to calculate how much woodlands would need to be removed to meet the plan’s projections for new vineyards, after which the restrictions would kick in.

Also included in the measure are stronger stream setback laws.

Napa County Farm Bureau and Winegrowers of Napa County are opposing the measure. Napa Valley Grapegrowers has expressed concern about it.

“We believe governing by initiative should be a last resort when all other options have been exhausted,” said Ryan Klobas, policy director for the Farm Bureau.

The Farm Bureau wants to educate the public on the county’s existing conservation laws, he said.

It’s unclear what position the Napa Valley Vintners will take. The group co-authored an earlier version of the measure along with Wilson and Hackett, then called for more community collaboration amid a backlash that included some of its own members.

Rex Stults of Napa Valley Vintners said the group’s Board of Directors last week voted for Napa Valley Vintners to “terminate involvement” with the proposed measure. He didn’t say whether Napa Valley Vintners might actively oppose it.

Napa Valley Vintners’ focus at the moment is looking out for the well-being of its members and the community in the wake of the recent wildfires, Stults said. The group doesn’t need to make an immediate decision about a proposed measure that has yet to qualify for the ballot.

Any future position on the measure will be made with input from members and study by the group’s community and industry issues committee, said a Napa Valley Vintners email to members.

Wilson almost lost his home over the past couple of weeks to the now-tamed Atlas Fire. He lives along Monticello Road north of Wooden Valley Road between Napa and Lake Berryessa.

“The fire did pour down off the ridgeline to the west of us and came down to the highway, but didn’t cross,” Wilson said. “We were very, very lucky.”

In the wake of the fires, proponents weighed whether they still had time and energy to gather signatures by the Dec. 5 deadline to qualify a measure for the June 2018 ballot. They could have delayed and waited for the November 2018 ballot.

“We see the watershed has taken a serious hit … why postpone it? We understand it is urgent to protect the trees we have remaining. We propose to help with the recovery of the health of the watershed,” Wilson said.

The version of the measure being circulated for signatures is almost identical to the one co-written with Napa Valley Vintners, Hackett said. Among the differences is stronger language about protecting existing vineyards, he added.

Hackett and Wilson haven’t forgotten about their collaboration with Napa Valley Vintners.

“This has their fingerprints all over it as well,” Hackett said.

Napa Valley Vintners, Napa County Farm Bureau, Winegrowers of Napa County and Napa Valley Grapegrowers all opposed a 2016 version of the oak woodlands initiative. The county disqualified that version by Wilson and Hackett from the ballot on a technicality.

Napa Valley Vintners officials said they collaborated with Wilson and Hackett this year on a version because they wanted to create something less onerous, given they knew the proponents would try again. But other wine industry groups criticized the results and said they were left out of the collaboration.

Cal Fire says 569 Napa County houses destroyed by fires

The Atlas, Nuns/Partrick and Tubbs fires took a bite out of the county’s rural housing stock.

Napa County wildfires damaged up to 1,115 structures—including 652 homes, of which 569 were destroyed—though a final tally has yet to be released.

All of those structures are outside of cities and inside the unincorporated county.

“We lost six percent of (rural) housing in the last two weeks,” county Planning, Building and Environmental Services Director David Morrison said.

Morrison announced those figures at Tuesday’s Board of Supervisors meeting and said they came from Cal Fire. A wildfire damage count by the county on its website said just over 700 structures are too damaged to be used and 37 are so damaged that only limited use is safe.

Morrison said the county will work to reconcile its own tally by building inspectors with the tally by Cal Fire.

One reason for the difference is the county focused on housing, as opposed to such structures as barns. Also, the county focused on damage that rendered buildings unsafe to enter.

By any count, the county has tons of debris that needs to be hauled away. Owners of destroyed homes have the option of letting the government do the job at no cost to them or paying to do it themselves. The county is coordinating the effort with such agencies as the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

Those choosing the government option have until 5 p.m. Nov. 6 to submit a right-of-entry form to the county. The form requires homeowners to give the county any insurance money for debris removal.

Supervisor Diane Dillon said some homeowners might decide to hire a contractor and do the job themselves to save time. Then they might find out eight months from now that insurance won’t cover the entire cost and the government removal option is gone.

“There’s a lot of evaluation by property owners that’s needed right now in weighing their options,” Dillon said. “That’s a very, very difficult process.”

As of Tuesday, no one was allowed to haul off debris from ruined homes. The county is working with the Army Corps, the federal Environmental Protection Agency and other agencies on the cleanup standards. Morrison said the county hopes to release the standards within a couple of days.

“We are trying to wind our way through the labyrinth of state and federal regulations, trying to understand what rules will be applied to homeowners and property owners wanting to rebuild in Napa,” he said.

Dillon said state and federal officials are viewing the California wildfires as a bigger disaster in terms of structures destroyed than recent hurricane disasters.

“This is a new thing for them to do, to basically to be able to have enough people to respond to the seven counties in California that simultaneously had this destruction,” she said.

Cal Fire estimates recent wildfires statewide have destroyed 8,400 structures. The Tubbs fire alone destroyed an estimated 5,400 structures, making it the most destructive wildfire in California history. Though it started near Calistoga, the fire wreaked most of its property destruction in Sonoma County.

The first phase in hauling off the debris from destroyed homes is dealing with hazardous waste amid the ash and ruins.

“These are things like freon in a refrigerator, gasoline in a lawnmower, paint cans, oil cans, pesticides, cleaners,” Morrison said.

Morrison said that U.S. EPA intends to inspect properties after hazard waste cleanup before the rest of the demolition work can go forward.

People wanting to remove debris themselves will have a contractor submit a work plan to the county. Plans will say how they will remove the debris, where they will take it, how they will transport it, how they will test the soil to ensure it is clean enough for reconstruction.

If they want to reuse the foundation, they must have an engineer inspect it to ensure it’s structurally sound and test soils underneath to make certain the sub-base is undamaged.

“We do have people who want to move (forward) now,” Supervisor Alfredo Pedroza said.

Morrison said the county wants people to be able to get back to normal as quickly as possible. But it must make certain a property is cleaned up appropriately so it doesn’t pollute the environment or a neighboring property and that the foundation is sound.

“If people can do that quickly and efficiently, we’re all for it,” he said.

Pedroza said he understood the steps that must be taken.

“We can’t compromise the health of the community,” he said.

Also Tuesday, the county worked on streamlining how fire victims can obtain county permits for rebuilding.

Morrison said the county will make things as simple and quick as possible for people who want to rebuild a similar home. Those who want to do such things such as double the size of their home might find things less streamlined.

As firefighters leave Napa Valley Expo, regular events set to resume

The Napa Valley Expo’s most recent occupants have come not to entertain, but to protect.

On the downtown fairground that hosts the Town & County Fair and the BottleRock music festival, more than 3,000 people – including about 2,500 firefighters – arrived to join the battle against the wildfires that began ripping through Napa and Sonoma counties more than two weeks ago.

Now, as fire agencies from across the West Coast pack up their tents and drive their trucks home, the Expo’s leadership is preparing to bring normalcy back to its property on Third Street – in the form of a dog show, holiday gift fair and Christmas tree lot officials say will open as scheduled in November.

Joe Anderson, the Expo’s president and chief executive, announced the return of scheduled events in a Tuesday meeting of the fair’s board of directors – a meeting moved next door to the Napa Valley Transportation Authority offices because of Cal Fire’s continued use of the fairground.

Vehicles and personnel from Cal Fire and other agencies already have begun departing Napa, but some units may stay on for up to 10 more days, Anderson said. The state fire protection agency has paid the Expo $10,000 a day since the outbreak of the fires to use the facility as a staging ground.

Within a few hours of the fires’ eruption on the night of Oct. 8, the Expo opened up most of its property, except for its RV park, to fire crews needing space for their staffs and vehicles. The fairground also housed as many as 121 livestock animals rescued from evacuation zones, Anderson reported.

Cal Fire is expected to fully vacate the grounds in time for the Expo’s November schedule, Anderson told directors. During that month, the Wine Country Kennel Club is booked to hold its annual dog show Nov. 8-13, Steve’s Trees will open its lot Nov. 14, and the Gifts ‘N’ Tyme show will occupy Chardonnay Hall Nov. 16-19.

Expo staff will need to repair some damage to the grounds that occurred while firefighters were stationed there, mainly to lawns and irrigation systems where numerous heavy trucks were parked, according to Anderson.

An estimate of repair costs was not immediately available, but Anderson said the Expo expects to work with Cal Fire to apply for funds from the Federal Emergency Management Agency due to the disaster declarations stemming from the North Bay fires.

The Expo also lost an unknown amount of revenue from events canceled due to the fires, whose smoke produced persistent air quality warnings throughout the Bay Area. After tourists booked at the facility’s RV park left Napa early, some of their places were taken by fire evacuees the Expo accommodated for free.

The bingo hall at the Expo will reopen Friday, and the Napa Valley Model Railroad Historical Society also has use of its building at the fairground, Anderson announced.

Fair directors voted Anderson the temporary power to authorize fire-related payments after consulting with the Expo’s executive committee. Repairs are expected to continue into 2018, although work on the lawns and other key fixtures is expected to start first, ahead of the fall and winter rains.

The presence of thousands of first responders in Napa’s heart is a reminder of the Expo’s key role in bad times as well as good, according to board member Jeri Gill.

“It’s not only for fun events like the fair,” she said. “It’s a reminder of how important the Expo is to the community and to the county.”

Napa planners to take up marijuana sales, home growing

Napa land-use authorities on Thursday will work toward a framework to decide where medical cannabis can be sold – and pot products perhaps made – in the city.

The Planning Commission will review an ordinance that would enable one or more dispensaries to sell marijuana for medicinal purposes, reviving a drive that stalled in 2013 when Napa backed out of the effort rather than run afoul of a federal ban on the drug. The policy change would bring Napa in line with the 2015 package of state laws that will set rules for growing, manufacturing and selling cannabis products, and is scheduled to launch state licensing of marijuana-based businesses in 2018.

Napa’s latest move toward legal marijuana sales got a push in May from the City Council, which declared an openness toward dispensaries in certain parts of town as well as permitting residents to grow personal-use plants outside as well as inside their homes.

According to a memorandum by Napa’s community development director Rick Tooker, the ordinance would “decriminalize” commercial marijuana sales rather than legalize them. Napa’s sales ban would technically stay in place, but the city would provide immunity from the ban for sellers as long as they obey local and state laws.

That distinction, Tooker wrote planners, should help Napa avoid the clash with federal law that derailed the city’s earlier attempt to sponsor the opening of a dispensary – a move that ran aground after a state appeals court in 2011 threw out a similar dispensary ordinance in Long Beach for contradicting the U.S. government’s existing marijuana ban.

Two kinds of businesses would be eligible for such city clearance – retailers selling to patients with a doctor’s recommendation or their caregivers, and small-scale manufacture of cannabis-based products such as edibles (pot-laced foods consumed as a smoking alternative) as a sideline to the making of food or non-alcoholic beverages. Napa would not extend protection to businesses involved in cannabis growing, warehousing, transport or testing.

Each clearance of a marijuana-related business would last a year and require annual renewal, and cannot be transferred to another business.

Napa’s ordinance would allow medical dispensaries in three types of zones – those marked for medical offices (like those on Trancas Street near Queen of the Valley Medical Center), light industry (such as the California Boulevard-Industrial Way crossing) or industrial parks including those near Napa Valley Corporate Drive.

Cannabis sellers would have to be at least 1,000 feet away from schools, parks and playgrounds, more than the state’s 600-foot minimum. Dispensaries also would not be allowed next to or across the street from homes or residential lots, but would be allowed behind existing residential properties.

Planners also will discuss how to bring the city in line with state laws guaranteeing residents the right to grow up to six marijuana plants at their homes for personal use. Napa’s proposed ordinance would allow indoor cultivation but require homeowners to obey building and construction codes, limit grow lighting to fewer than 1,200 watts, and keep the kitchen, all bathrooms and at least one bedroom free of pot plants.

In November 2016, California voters passed Proposition 64 allowing state residents 21 and older to grow up to six marijuana plants in their homes, for both medical and recreational use. Cities keep the right to allow or forbid outdoor cultivation on residential properties.