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Napa model railroad group sues to remain at Napa Valley Expo

A model railroad group is suing to remain at its longtime Napa Valley Expo home and is basing its legal argument on state environmental law.

The Napa Valley Model Railroad Historical Society filed the lawsuit Friday in Alameda County Superior Court. It is challenging a decision by the Napa Valley Expo Board of Directors in July 2017 to allow the railroad group’s lease to expire on Dec. 31, 2017.

Model railroad enthusiasts want a court order that forces the Expo Board to rescind the lease expiration. They want the 4,600-square-foot, scale-model train exhibit to remain at the Expo at 575 Third St. in Napa, where the group occupies two Quonset huts with arcing, galvanized steel roofs.

“The model railroad is a recreational, cultural, educational and historic resource enjoyed by thousands of visitors each year, with its lease automatically renewing for many decades,” the lawsuit said.

Expo CEO Joseph Anderson on Tuesday said the organization has no comment on the lawsuit. The lawsuit wouldn’t have come as a surprise, given the Expo Board of Directors on Dec. 12 discussed the possibility in a closed session.

This dispute began in earnest after the Expo in February 2017 released a draft master plan to renovate the state-owned, 34-acre fairgrounds. The plan’s many proposals include demolishing the model railroad buildings to make room for parking spaces.

The thrust of the railroad group’s legal argument is that the Expo is violating the California Environmental Quality Act, or CEQA.

CEQA requires environmental review be done before the Expo can approve or implement the draft master plan in any way, the lawsuit said. That means preparing and certifying an environmental impact report. Yet, it claimed, the Expo has taken such steps as approving the railroad group’s lease expiration and planting five acres of sod.

In a press release, the railroad group said CEQA protects not only natural environments, but also important educational, cultural, recreational and historical resources such as the model railroad. It accused the Expo of beginning to implement its draft master plan in piecemeal fashion.

J.L. Sousa, Register 

The Napa Valley Model Railroad Historical Society is suing the 25th Agricultural District Fair Board to remain at the Napa Valley Expo. The board made a decision in July to end the group's lease on Dec. 31, 2017.

“We know there is a way for the model railroad to continue to serve as a cultural and recreational asset to Napa County families while developing a viable, new master plan,” Railroad Historical Society President Daniel Jonas said in the press release.

The Expo’s draft master plan acknowledged that an environmental impact report is needed before approving a final plan. Such a report would look at cumulative environmental impacts, discuss alternatives, identify ways to lessen or avoid impacts and propose mitigation measures for significant impacts, it said.

But the Expo Board’s recent actions suggest that organization thinks it can allow the railroad group’s lease to expire without doing an environmental impact report.

Expo Board President John Dunbar in August wrote that the railroad group pays below-market rent and that issues exist regarding the model railroad structure’s fire safety, building code compliance and accessibility for the disabled. The Expo master plan focuses on developing multi-use facilities, he wrote.

The draft master plan vision, if enacted as proposed, would roll out in stages over 10 to 15 years. It is designed to further the Expo’s adopted vision of a fairgrounds that is the county’s premier agricultural, recreational and community gathering place.

Such events as the BottleRock music festival and the annual Napa Town & Country Fair use the fairgrounds. Other uses include a bingo hall and a recreational vehicle park.

According to the lawsuit, the Napa Valley Model Railroad Historical Society began in 1955 with a layout in the Southern Pacific West Napa depot. Subsequent homes included a basement at the Veterans Home of California at Yountville.

J.L. Sousa, Register 

The Napa Valley Model Railroad Historical Society is suing the 25th Agricultural District Fair Board to remain at the Napa Valley Expo. The board made a decision in July to end the group's lease on Dec. 31, 2017.

The group in 1970 moved to the Expo and into two donated, World War II-era Quonset huts from the Basalt ship-building facility along the Napa River. It built a two-story center building to connect the two Quonset huts.

Filing the suit in Alameda County Superior Court is proper because the respondents are a state agency and its directors are represented by the state Attorney General who maintains offices in that county, the lawsuit said.

The Expo Board represents the state's 25th District Agricultural Association. Listed in the lawsuit as defendants are the Expo Board and the California Department of Food and Agriculture Division of Fairs and Expositions.

Sharing the Spirit
Sharing the Spirit: Napa County dad volunteers to bring kids together on BMX team

Being a part of Neil Evans’ BMX team – Napa Valley Pull – is about more than just riding bikes and racing. It’s about being a good sport, a good student and a good person.

Evans started the team a little more than a year ago as a way to get more local youths off their computers and onto bikes.

“I love helping people out, that’s definitely my calling in life,” Evans said. “I’ve always wanted to help out but never got an opportunity to at a local level and then I found BMXing.”

Evans isn’t a professional racer, though. He has only been doing BMX (Bicycle Motocross) since his daughter became interested in the sport five years ago.

“Once my daughter got hooked on it, I said ‘OK, if you do it, I’ll do it with you,’” Evans said. Eventually he and his daughter, Tia, now 11, joined a team. After a while, though, he realized that the culture of the team didn’t exemplify the things they had grown to love about the sport. So, he started his own team.

“I really wasn’t looking for the best riders. Honestly, I just wanted good kids and good parents,” he said.

“Everybody that we have on the team is fun,” he said. “We all get along and just enjoy each other’s company … It’s been a blessing.”

Although his goal is to get local youth involved in BMX racing, the team has a range of ages on it – people from age 5 to 50.

Napa Valley Pull has been a dream come true for Ben Anderson, 17, who started riding in 2013.

“I absolutely love it and I do not plan on leaving it anytime soon,” said Anderson, a junior at Vintage High School. “It’s the best thing I could ever ask for.”

The team is like its own community that’s close-knit and supportive of one another, he said. Neil Evans, he said, is a big part of that.

“Neil’s a really nice person,” Anderson said. “He’s one of the main reasons why I joined the team.”

Even when he was just racing, if another racer had a problem with their bike, Evans would be the first to offer them his bike, Anderson said. And now as the team manager, he works really hard to get everyone things like hats, jerseys, windbreakers and even bicycles.

To stay on the team, the kids need to maintain a B-average.

“I tell ‘em, ‘You guys work hard with your grades, I’ll work hard getting sponsors,’” Evans said. With the funds he collects from sponsors, Evans purchases things for the team and puts money toward travelling to races.

Some sponsorship money was used to build Jonathan Wachowski, 16, a new bike.

“They (the team) invited me out to breakfast, then they showed up and just gave it to me,” said Wachowski, a sophomore at Vintage High School. “I was pretty excited it, it’s a really nice bike.”

A good bike can cost around $2,500.

“He didn’t even know what to say he was so excited,” Evans said. “Now he has a bike that’s gonna last him a long, long time.”

Evans is always thinking of everyone else before himself, Anderson said.

“He’s put a lot of his time and a lot of his effort into making this team happen,” he said. Even when something bad happens to him – like the time equipment was stolen from his truck – he still puts the team first, he said. “He takes care of all of us.”

“He’s just a great manager for the team and a really good person,” said Deanna Boustead, who had two children on Napa Valley Pull. “Since he asked the kids to join NVP, it’s been a wonderful experience for them. They love it – they are so motivated by him.”

Napa Valley Pull is like a family, she said.

“It’s about working hard and giving me 100 percent on every race,” Evans said. “It doesn’t matter if they’re in first or if they’re in last place as long as they finished hard every time.”

Evans, who graduated from Vintage High School and currently lives in American Canyon, spends a few hours after work most days doing something – usually talking to sponsors – for the team.

It’s a lot of work, but it’s fun, too, Evans said. He gets to help get kids excited about being outside, being a team, participating in a sport and build confidence.

“You see a kid smile, it speaks volumes,” he said. “It warms my heart up.”

Napa County Planning Commission brainstorms on ways to be more efficient

The Napa County Planning Commission wants to be a more in-the-zone, less-delay-prone overseer of Wine Country growth.

Commissioners rule on sometimes-controversial rural growth requests. They decide when winery hospitality crosses the line from being a needed ingredient for prosperity to an over-the-top, entertainment-centered infringement on agriculture.

The commission ended the year by suggesting several rule changes. It wants to tame what Commission Chair Jeri Hansen called “the 8 p.m. data dump of 800 pages.”

She was referring to opponents of projects presenting the Planning Commission with reams of documents the night before a meeting. The commission then continues the hearing so the applicant and staff can review the information.


Jeri Hansen

“That is, I think, just really bad form,” Hansen said. “It’s really not about giving us new information, it’s about continuing the hearing.”

Commissioner Terry Scott agreed.

“It concerns me when our process seems to grind to a halt,” Scott said.

For example, the commission received hundreds of pages of comments to the Mountain Peak winery application just before the July 20, 2016 hearing. County officials said during the meeting that they hadn’t had time to review the material, prompting the commission to postpone its decision.

Some commissioners complained about delay tactics. But one commissioner pointed out that the county staff report on Mountain Peak winery had been released only five days earlier and the public needed time to formulate written responses.

All of this makes ending the “data dump” a complicated endeavor. The commission proposes to “strongly encourage” the public to submit written materials at least 24 hours before a hearing.

“Is that as strong as we can get on that?” Hansen asked.

Deputy County Counsel Laura Anderson said going further has a downside. More people might appeal commission decisions to the Board of Supervisors because they couldn’t submit information.

Still, the commission proposes to take some steps. It might request people who submit written materials the day of meetings to provide 10 copies. It might require people who want to show PowerPoint presentations to submit the presentation 24 hours in advance.

Anderson noted the comment period on environmental documents typically closes the day before a Planning Commission meeting. If the comment period closed two weeks or 10 days or five days before a hearing, fewer people might submit late comments, she said.

The commission also wants to run tighter meetings. It wants to impose a three-minute time limit on members of the public who go to the microphone to speak, the same as is done at county Board of Supervisors meetings.

Present commission bylaws have no speaking time limit. Even so, the commission during controversial hearings with many speakers has imposed a three-minute limit.

In addition, the commission wants to impose a 15-minute limit on presentations by project applicants, unless the chair grants additional time.

The commission talked about the changes to its bylaws on Dec. 6 and Dec. 20, then endorsed them. The Board of Supervisors will consider the recommendations at a yet-to-be-announced date.

Even as commissioners talked about improving efficiencies, they wrapped up one of their busiest schedules in years. They approved 10 new wineries and 18 major modifications to existing wineries in 2017, as well as ruled on such decisions as the Palmaz heliport.

By comparison, the commission in 2016 approved 11 new wineries and eight major modifications. In 2015, it approved five new wineries and six major modifications and turned down two winery proposals.