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A group calling itself the Alliance for Responsible Governance says Napa County most often isn't following state environmental laws when it approves winery projects. 

J.L. Sousa/Register file photo

A mystery group calling itself Alliance for Responsible Governance claims Napa County regularly fails to fully follow California environmental laws when approving new wineries and winery expansions.

Since 2013, Napa County has approved more than 90 winery projects. It has generally conducted environmental reviews for traffic and other issues that fell short of California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) requirements, the group wrote.

The Alliance’s letter to the county Board of Supervisors and Planning Commission has potential legal ramifications. It comes from the San Francisco-based law firm Shute, Mihaly & Weinberger on behalf of the group.

“Alliance for Responsible Governance urges the county to remedy its failed procedures promptly,” attorneys Ellison Folk and Robert Perlmutter wrote.

Interim County Executive Officer Minh Tran said Friday the county will soon respond publicly to the Alliance for Responsive Government letter. He added the county disagrees with the premise that it does inadequate environmental reviews.

The Alliance letter comes at a time when some residents worry that tourism threatens to overshadow the area’s agricultural roots. Others embrace what they see as a wine country success story.

So who is behind the Alliance for Responsible Governance?

“At this point, the Alliance doesn’t really want this to be about individuals in the group,” Folk said in a phone interview.

Rather, members want the focus to be on the future of Napa Valley. They are concerned about the way the county has consistently failed to adequately analyze new wineries, she said.

Folk said she doesn’t know how many members are in the Alliance.

Napa Vision 2050, a coalition of environmental and community groups, has been amid the thick of the county’s growth battles. Vision 2050 President Dan Mufson said he doesn’t know identities of the Alliance’s members, though he’s seen the letter and recognizes kindred spirits.

“We certainly support what’s in there,” Mufson said. “These are issues we’ve been dealing with one-by-one, piecemeal.”

Alliance members might be wine industry figures sympathetic to these causes who don’t want their names known, Mufson said.

Rex Stults of Napa Valley Vintners could only speculate on who might be behind the Alliance. He said that, if not for a few egregious violations of use permits, the focus in the community would be on the bigger problems of traffic and affordable housing.

Jennifer Putnam of Napa Valley Grapegrowers said the group’s board has yet to discuss the Alliance letter. But, she said, the Alliance approach of hiding behind a secret identify might not be the most productive way to plan the county’s future as an agricultural community.

“We look forward to being part of any of those productive conversations,” Putnam added.

The Napa County Farm Bureau said in a statement it largely supports the positions in the Alliance letter. The group noted it has long been engaged in the county code compliance issue.

Shute, Mihaly & Weinberger for various clients has raised objections related to several proposed winery projects in recent years: Yountville Hill Winery, Girard Winery, Caymus Vineyards, Frog’s Leap Winery and Raymond Vineyards.

The law firm also worked with proponents of the oak woodland and watershed protection ballot measure that the county in 2016 disqualified on a technicality. It drafted both Measure J in 1990 and its 2008 successor Measure P, which puts most Napa County agricultural land use designation changes in the hands of voters.

Folk and Perlmutter wrote that the county since 2013 approved 93 winery projects that combined allow a million visitors and covered more than a million square feet. They noted the county required full environmental impact reports for only the Hall Winery distillery building demolition and proposed Yountville Hill Winery.

Instead, Napa County has used exemptions and smaller studies called negative declarations to satisfy California environmental laws. Folk and Perlmutter claimed that this has resulted in inadequate environmental review.

The Alliance criticized the county for allowing illegal activities to be part of the baseline when it evaluates a winery seeking after-the-fact approvals. That allows the unpermitted uses to evade environmental review, Folk and Permutter wrote.

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For example, the letter said, Frog’s Leap Winery in 2016 had a permit for 350 visitors weekly. It was actually hosting 800 visitors weekly. It voluntarily stepped forward and successfully asked the Planning Commission to modify its use permit to allow 1,100 visitors weekly.

Yet, when the county analyzed traffic and other impacts at Frog’s Leap, it compared the requested increase to the unpermitted visitation already taking place, not what was permitted, Folk and Perlmutter wrote.

“This improper baseline obscured the true environmental impacts of the approvals and produced a misleading environmental review,” they wrote.

Then-Planning Commissioner Heather Phillips asked about this practice at the Aug. 17, 2016 Frog’s Leap hearing. She added she understood it was part of a Board of Supervisors directive to encourage voluntary compliance.

Deputy County Counsel Laura Anderson confirmed that this approach is the Board’s directive. The practice is perfectly acceptable under state law and, in fact, the typical baseline for environmental analysis is the existing setting, she said.

“The agency does have some discretion to deviate from that. But generally speaking, existing conditions are what you want to follow,” Anderson told Planning Commissioners. “And that’s what we’ve been following.”

Folk and Perlmutter wrote that the county’s traffic studies are flawed. For example, the county considers a traffic increase of less than 1 percent resulting from a winery projects as insignificant. But many smaller projects taken together do have significant effects, they said.

The county repeatedly defers cumulative traffic impacts to the environmental impact report done for its 2008 general plan. Yet that 2008 study failed to adequately address winery-related traffic, Folk and Perlmutter wrote.

Folk and Perlmutter made several other claims, among them that the county requires mitigation such as winery event visitors using shuttles, but fails to ensure enforcement.

“Alliance for Responsible Governance hopes to resolve these issues with the county in a timely and amicable fashion,” Folk and Perlmutter wrote.

But if the county doesn’t take appropriate steps, the Alliance reserves its right to ensure that environmental impacts for winery projects are analyzed and mitigated as required by state law, they wrote.

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Barry Eberling covers Napa County government, transportation, the environment and general assignments. He was worked for the Napa Valley Register since fall 2014 and previously worked 27 years for the Daily Republic of Fairfield. He is a graduate of UC Sa