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Faced with complaints about lax permitting for wineries, a Napa County committee has thrown its weight behind a requirement that all local wineries deliver annual proof they are following county rules.

A self-certification program endorsed Monday morning by the Agricultural Protection Advisory Committee would require wineries in the unincorporated county to certify their compliance with wine production limits and use permit conditions. Each winery’s principal officer would sign the statement.

The yearly reports would include data allowing the county to check whether wineries stick to their production caps and, where required, follow the ordinance requiring locally made wines to contain at least 75 percent Napa County grapes.

Committee members also supported a statement urging county planners not to use land-use variances as a “principal tool” to make marginal lands eligible for winemaking — a nod to those criticizing the spread of vineyards as a threat to forests, water supplies and roads. The statement calls on county officials to accept only those land-use exceptions justified by evidence.

The two proposals, which passed by unanimous 16-0 votes, will become part of the agricultural committee’s package of regulations to go before the Planning Commission and Board of Supervisors later this year. (Two committee members, Jeri Gill and Debra Dommen, took part in Monday’s votes by speakerphone from Rivas, Nicaragua.)

Annual certification checks for all wineries are meant to provide closer oversight than the current system, in which the county randomly chooses 20 wineries to audit each year.

Under the new proposal, a winery found to exceed its yearly production limit, or that violates the 75 percent local fruit rule, would receive a deeper review from the county. Officials also could impose a stricter audit based on complaints from the public.

Offending wineries would have to immediately meet the conditions of a use permit, and could not apply for permit changes for a year afterward.

Committee members have grappled with requiring self-certification, but on July 13 failed to pass an earlier plan by the required two-thirds vote, partly due to fears the county could not keep proprietary winery information out of public hands. While the county can legally keep secret information such as state data used to calculate wine output, staff members said it could not hold back visitor counts or marketing efforts — a sore point with some members who see traffic congestion from large public events as a major quality-of-life threat.

Instead, the county’s Planning, Building and Environmental Services presented its own plan, which largely concentrates on wine production and local grape content — facts much more easily obtained and defined, according to committee director David Morrison.

While leaving aside any curbs on winery visits, Morrison rejected alternatives that could have given owners as long as three years to get their properties within the rules, saying such a long wait would give those businesses an unfair advantage and erode respect for land-use law.

“If I’m caught speeding, the cop doesn’t say to me, ‘Go keep doing 90 mph, it’s OK,’” he told the committee. “To say we’ll deal with it in the next three years — in that case, why bring it up? Try that with your insurance company; you won’t get very far.”

Napa County, however, will continue to focus on helping winery owners comply with land-use rules rather than reaching for punishment first, he added. “If you have any notion of us coming in like G-men and smashing wine bottles to get a place into compliance, please dismiss them,” said Morrison.

No process yet exists to decide what penalties to impose on wineries breaking their permit terms, and the county proposal suggests creating a formula to determine fines and judgments. The plan also lacks a cost estimate for the additional enforcement needed to oversee all wineries, though it suggests using enforcement and compliance review fees to support the expanded program.

Harvest Duhig, a local winemaker and farmer, urged the county to be careful enforcing wine production limits. Wide swings in grape production from year to year could harm growers, she said, if winemakers must abruptly cut purchases to avoid producing more wine than their use permits allow.

“If a buyer, because of an audit, gave me notice, it’s very hard for me to find another winemaker to buy my grapes on short notice,” Duhig told committee members.

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Left unaddressed by the committee’s proposal is how to police visitor limits at wineries. County staff called such enforcement “particularly problematic” because wineries’ visitor logbooks cannot be verified for accuracy.

Still, several speakers urged the county to keep a closer eye on visitors and events at wineries.

“When I see event after event after event, I can’t know whether that winery really is allowed to do all that or not,” said Bernadette Brooks, who recommended building a database of use permits to let outsiders know the number of events and visitors a winery is entitled to host.

The committee’s second vote targeted what members called the abuse of variances – exceptions to zoning rules granted to individual wineries – to squeeze such operations into land unsuited for them. But members also shelved a proposal to impose hard caps on setbacks from public roads, a plan that also would have eliminated exceptions for any winery larger than 40 acres.

Committee member Eve Kahn rejected a hard-and-fast limit on setback exemptions, but described it as emblematic of brewing frustration.

“This, I think, was an attempt to get at the issue of a perception that the county, when looking at a winery, says ‘How do we make it work? How do we make it fit?’” she said. “There are too many cases where (variances) make it easy to destroy the viewshed or the watershed. If this isn’t the solution, then let’s go back and see how do we prevent that from happening.”

The agricultural committee, which was appointed by the Board of Supervisors, is slated to offer its recommendations on winery issues first to the Planning Commission on Sept. 2, and then to supervisors Nov. 24.

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Howard Yune covers the city of Napa and the town of Yountville. He has been a reporter and photographer for the Register since 2011, and previously wrote for the Marysville Appeal-Democrat, Anaheim Bulletin and Coos Bay (Oregon) World.

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