Back when Napa County was drunk on growth, the Napa Register’s 1963 centennial edition predicted that the population of Napa County — 65,890 in 1960 — would explode to 250,000 in 2000 and a half million by 2010. The city of Napa, then around 22,000, would grow to 378,000.
In fact, nothing of the sort happened. The county’s population in 2010 was only 136,484, a quarter of what had been predicted. Napa grew to almost 77,000 in 2010, not 378,000.
What deflated such grandiose population predictions? Dual movements to preserve agriculture and the intimate scale of Napa Valley cities combined to derail fast-growth estimates, according to historians.
Of vital importance was Napa County creating the first Agricultural Preserve in the United States. This story is recounted by 12 people in the newly published “Oral Histories of Napa County’s Agricultural Preserve.”
In part because of the Ag Preserve, vineyards, not houses, have replaced most of the orchards and pastures that existed in the early 1960s and wineries have mushroomed from a handful in 1963 to more than 400 today.
The Ag Preserve was pushed by a group of residents who, concerned that the Napa Valley could vanish into a metropolis of high-rises and highways, set out to restrict urbanization of the county’s farmlands. County supervisors put the Ag Preserve into law in 1968.
This local ordinance established agriculture and open space as the “best use” for much of the land in Napa County. The Ag Preserve designated more than 438,000 acres as agricultural preserve or watershed protection lands. It became the underpinning of the Napa Valley’s rise to world renown for its wines.
The Ag Preserve, however, did not happen without a fierce battle within the community. The story of this battle is told in “Oral Histories of Napa County’s Agricultural Preserve,” a three-year effort financed by the Jack L. Davies Napa Valley Agricultural Land Preservation Fund to document the Ag Preserve movement.
Rue Ziegler, an anthropologist and professor at the University of San Francisco, interviewed a dozen key people. They included:
• George Abate, Napa County tax assessor in 1968
• Dewey Andersen, Napa County supervisor in 1968
• Volker Eisele, grapegrower, vintner and community leader
• James Hickey, Napa County planning director 1970-1989
• Mervin Lernhart, Napa County Planning Commission legal advisor in 1968
• Thomas May, grape grower and community leader
• Donald McFarland, Napa County planning commissioner in 1968
• Virginia Simms, past member of county Planning Commission and Board of Supervisors
• John Tuteur, past member of Board of Supervisors
• Mel Varrelman, past member of Board of Supervisors
• Warren Winiarski, grape grower, vintner, community leader
• Pierce Carson, a Register staff writer who then covered county government.
“It was emotional, very emotional,” Winiarski says of the turmoil created by the struggle to create the preserve. “You hear stories of people who were on different sides and they never talked to each other again after this.”
Transcriptions of the interviews describe not only the political battles of 1968 but their outlooks for the future of the Ag Preserve.
“It’s going to be a tough fight,” Varrelman notes in one passage. “There’s going to always be people who want to expand the borders of cities, and there’s always going to be people who want to expand into the unincorporated area for housing.”
Residents gathered at Winiarski’s Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars earlier this month to celebrate the publication of the “Oral Histories of Napa County’s Agricultural Preserve.”