Citizen activists want to make certain the Napa County Planning Commission hears them loud-and-clear on controversial Wine Country growth issues.
They are afraid the fine print in proposed Planning Commission bylaw changes threatens to unduly limit public participation. And, while Napa County supervisors see no attempt to undermine democracy, they too have concerns.
County Supervisor Diane Dillon said she understands that planning commissioners want to streamline meetings. But she and other supervisors think the effort needs more work.
“The real problems or concerns that they have – the challenges – aren’t even addressed in these solutions,” Dillon said at last week’s Board of Supervisors meeting.
The Planning Commission is appointed by the Board of Supervisors to make various land use decisions and recommendations. That puts the commission in the center of controversial proposals to build new wineries and expand existing wineries.
One proposed change that rankles Napa Vision 2050 clarifies that the Planning Commission can limit public comments to three minutes and, if the chair deems necessary, as little as two minutes. Vision 2050 is a coalition of local environmental and community groups.
Vision 2050 sees two minutes as being too little. Supervisors were also wary.
“I’m concerned about two minutes being enumerated as a low-end option,” Supervisor Belia Ramos said. “Even in the longest of hearings, that has not been applied.”
County Executive Officer Minh Tran said the courts have upheld two minutes as a minimum time limit for public comments to allow for efficient meetings. But, he said, the tradition and practice at Napa County is three minutes. The county even stuck with three minutes when several hundred people attended the Napa Pipe hearings.
One proposed Planning Commission bylaw addition asks public speakers to keep comments brief and not repeat previous testimony. Supervisor Ryan Gregory called this “micromanaging.”
“We all know that if we each have three minutes and we say the same thing, that’s less effective than if you’re organized and each take a part of it,” he said. “We all know that … But I don’t think we should dictate it.”
Planning commissioners themselves had a bigger concern when they reviewed possible bylaw changes in December.
Some commissioners expressed frustration over what one called “the 8 p.m. data dump of 800 pages.” Opponents to a project turn in hundreds of pages of comments the night before a Planning Commission meeting, county staff doesn’t have time to read them and the commission must continue the hearing.
The suspicion among some commissioners is that the document dump is a delay tactic.
But Dillon on Tuesday doesn’t see the proposed bylaw changes as addressing this issue. Nor did she see what can be done by making rule changes.
“There’s no way we can prevent people from delivering 80,000 pages of documents on Monday morning,” she said.
Planning Commission meetings are on Wednesdays and agendas typically come out late the previous week. Dillon said perhaps people are working and don’t see the agenda until the weekend.
Gregory said perhaps the county can release agendas earlier. That might be difficult for county staff at first, but over time would be manageable.
“I think we’ve given enough input and direction for the Planning Commission to have a robust discussion,” Board of Supervisors Chair Brad Wagenknecht said.