William Cole Vineyards

William Cole Vineyards in St. Helena. File photo

After Napa County filed lawsuits against three wineries earlier this year alleging they weren’t complying with their use permits, 20 small wineries are considering forming their own organization to push back.

The wineries contend that the lawsuits create a “chilling effect” on their operations because the costs of defending a lawsuit can be steep and burdensome for smaller wineries that lack the deeper pockets big wineries have.

They’re pushing for the Board of Supervisors to take up the use permit issues and find resolution in a public hearing, rather than going to court, former Napa County Supervisor Mel Varrelman told the board on Tuesday. He said the wineries are considering forming an organization to advocate for this.

“It is easy to see why, then, the small wineries are deeply concerned,” Varrelman said in his remarks. “The cost of legal action can be devastating. The result may bankrupt the winery and financially ruin a fine family.”

The county sued Altamura Winery in Wooden Valley, St. Helena-based William Cole Vineyards, and Kelham Vineyards on Zinfandel Lane in March and April.

County Planning Director Hillary Gitelman said in May that the lawsuits do not represent a campaign against vintners and winemakers, and the short periods of time between the filings was a matter of circumstance.

The county prefers voluntary compliance and typically spends one to two years working toward that goal before deciding whether to sue. That’s the last resort to resolve the issues, Supervisor Diane Dillon said in her May newsletter.

“It’s not to be punitive,” Dillon said. “It’s to create a level playing field for all the people who do comply.”

In his remarks to the board, Varrelman highlighted the William Cole case as an example of the broader concerns the small wineries have about their use permits.

The 20,000-gallon winery was first built in the 1800s, and its owners, William and Jane Ballentine, had to have the winery-definition ordinance amended in order to receive their permit to operate.

Varrelman said they received the wrong permit — not a commercial use permit — in 2002 and were notified of the mistake in 2010. In trying to get their permitting issue ironed out, the county is requiring William Cole to install a fire-suppression system, but the Ballentines contend this would compromise the historic integrity of the building, which has a cement floor and ceiling, and rock walls.

Paul Carey, the attorney for neighboring Morlet Family Estate, told the Board of Supervisors in January that William Cole had been operating illegally for years, and Supervisor Mark Luce said he wanted the issue to be brought up a future Board of Supervisors meeting.

The Morlets, who bought their property in 2010, are trying to join the county’s lawsuit against William Cole, and have filed a motion that bring them into the lawsuit as intervenors. They allege in their motion that William Cole has blocked access of a publicly shared road. Their motion is set to be heard July 3.

The Board of Supervisors has yet to take up the issue, but Luce said Wednesday he would prefer the supervisors take up these compliance concerns rather than have the county file lawsuits.

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“I would like to see us work it out at the board level,” Luce said. “We have a better grasp of the regulatory intent. Once it’s gone to (court) we’ve lost any ability to influence what’s going on.”

Varrelman said the William Cole case represents a significant countywide issue — balancing public safety with preserving historic structures — that the Board of Supervisors should address.

He questioned the fairness of the county instituting new requirements on William Cole, as the sprinklers weren’t required in 2002, in issuing the correct permit.

“The goal posts were moved,” Varrelman said told the board. “A conflict between competing goals of society was created, historic preservation versus public safety. This dispute should have been heard by the Board of Supervisors with all parties present in a public hearing.”

Dillon disagreed, saying the issue is a legal question properly heard in court before a judge, not a legislative issue for the Board of Supervisors.

“This isn’t a legislative decision,” Dillon said. “Mr. Varrelman is making it sound like it is. It’s not quite as simple.”

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