Napa County supervisors are almost finished sharpening rules to deal with rural winery rule-breakers, with March 27 set to become a red-letter date.
“It’s business as usual, up to March 27,” Board of Supervisors Chairwoman Belia Ramos said at Tuesday’s Board meeting.
After that, the path to voluntary compliance without facing certain consequences would close. The Board of Supervisors could make the planned, new policies official with a vote on Sept. 26.
Rural wineries with such use permit violations as too much wine production or visitation have been in the spotlight. However, the proposals by supervisors would also affect owners of non-winery businesses and residences in the unincorporated areas outside of cities.
Present policy allows rule-breakers to voluntarily seek to revise their county use permits to reflect conditions on the ground. They face no automatic penalties for taking this route, though neither are they promised success.
The new, proposed policy would allow the same voluntary compliance route for applications submitted to the county by March 27. Between now and then would be a grace period.
Violators who failed to take advantage of the grace period would have to follow their use permit terms for a year before asking for corrective changes. They could face fines or penalties for past and ongoing violations, a county report said.
The Board of Supervisors rejected setting a deadline for violators who meet the March 27 application submittal date to fully complete their applications. Instead, county staff will require that applicants make a good faith effort to keep working toward completion.
“I do think we have to emphasize the date on the front side and be flexible on the backside,” Supervisor Alfredo Pedroza said.
Supervisors acknowledged that winery use permits from past decades can be vague, leading to confusion. Also, wineries from different time periods can be subject to different county laws.
“For me, the emphasis is on the black-and-white compliance piece,” Supervisor Diane Dillon said. “I hope that’s where our emphasis will be.”
The county plans to offer use permit reviews. Permit holders could consult with county officials to determine the extent of their entitlements, a county report said.
“It would be a diagnostic tool for landowners so they know if they need to get an application together by March,” Planning, Building and Environmental Services Director David Morrison said.
Supervisors have expressed concern about use permit revision requests asking for both violations corrections and expansions. They had wanted to “decouple” the requests. The county would first deal with the violation corrections component, then take on the expansion requests at a later date.
Instead, supervisors on Tuesday decided on a slightly different direction. The Planning Commission will simply tackle the two types of requests separately at the same meeting. In the past, it has sometimes been unclear at Planning Commission meetings which use permit request fell in which category.
In addition, a new winery audit program could start in 2018. All rural wineries would submit information to the county annually documenting how much wine they produce using a three-year rolling average. Wineries required to use 75 percent Napa County grapes would have to verify they are doing so.
Ramos said even these steps wouldn’t end the rules compliance discussion.
“Compliance doesn’t have finality,” Ramos said. “Compliance isn’t something you arrive at one day and you say, ‘We made it and we get to check it off the list.’ ”
Rather, she said, compliance is a work in progress.
Cio Perez of Napa County Farm Bureau asked that the county grant no voluntary compliance use permit request without first considering the cumulative impacts. That means looking at the total traffic, water and other possible effects from multiple projects, as opposed to each project separately.
Rex Stults of Napa Valley Vintners asked only for some fine-tuning of the original county staff proposals for the new compliance policies. Napa Valley Vintners represents more than 500 members.
“We’re on board with this and we support compliance,” Stults told supervisors.
Michelle Benvenuto of Winegrowers of Napa County didn’t criticize the idea of compliance, but rather the county’s timeline. She noted the Board of Supervisors began its latest discussion on the topic on Aug. 22.
“The changes being proposed today are large and sweeping, and they were developed in a three-week time-frame in the middle of harvest,” Benvenuto said.
Local resident Yeoryios Apallas said complaints about winery rule-breakers from himself and others shouldn’t be viewed as an indictment against the whole industry. He views winery rule-breakers as being in the minority.
“I can count on my fingers and toes the number that have brought this issue before you,” Apallas said.
Mary Luros of the Napa County Housing Coalition said county rules for unincorporated areas apply to more than wineries. She asked the county to go after illegal vacation rentals that limit how many houses are available to live in.
“You know when it comes to housing, every unit counts,” Luros said.
Given all the compliance work, supervisors decided to put on the back-burner an effort to create a fast-track approval process for small wineries meeting certain criteria. The county recently took public comments on proposed language for such a law.
Dillon agreed the issue should be delayed. But she also noted the 2008 Napa County General Plan calls for a small winery fast track and she still sees the need.
“We’re going to have something for young winemakers trying to put their foot in the door without creating Pandora’s Box,” Dillon said.
The Board of Supervisors also talked about future planning priorities. Dillon said she’s heard of new rural homes and associated landscaping covering acres without going through the same level of scrutiny as new vineyards.
“Limiting the residential development area is high on my list,” Dillon said.