In attempting to resolve a land-use dispute between neighboring wineries north of St. Helena, the Napa County Board of Supervisors will allow William Cole Vineyards to stay open for business while it finishes improvements required in its permits.
The board was asked to rule on the building permit for William Cole and its owners, Bill and Jane Ballentine, as the county had issued it earlier this year, but neighbors Luc and Jodie Morlet of Morlet Family Vineyards filed an appeal.
The supervisors denied the appeal and ultimately sided with the Ballentines, but not before Supervisor Bill Dodd criticized Bill Ballentine while other members of the board urged each side to end the spat.
The Ballentines received approval for William Cole Vineyards more than a decade ago, but were issued a residential permit when a commercial permit was needed.
It wasn’t until recently that the permitting issue was noticed, and it took county staff two years — including filing a lawsuit against William Cole earlier this year — for the building permit to be issued.
Dodd split blame among county staff and Bill Ballentine for the original problem and the delay in resolving the matter. He also noted that Ballentine had appealed a major modification of the Morlets’ use permit before suing his neighbors and the county in 2011. That lawsuit was ultimately tossed.
“Was it just our staff?” Dodd asked. “No. Mr. Ballentine, you caused a lot of this problem. There’s an old adage, ‘Don’t throw stones when you live in a glass house.’ It’s time, frankly, to move on.”
The Morlets’ attorney, Paul Carey, argued to the supervisors that his clients were appealing because they felt the county was holding the Ballentines to a separate standard.
Jodie Morlet said the county was far more scrupulous during the permitting process for her winery than for the Ballentines’ and they were being let off the hook for years of illegal operation. Her winery had completed its permitting requirements before operating, she said.
“Treat this winery like you treated my clients’ winery,” Carey told the supervisors. “Don’t send the message that it’s easier to ask for forgiveness than to ask for permission.”
Bill Ballentine said the permitting discrepancy was attributed to confusion between himself and county staff, and amounted to a “technicality,” not a willful intent to flout the county’s ordinances.
“The issue with the neighbor is really sad,” Ballentine said. “We have been in business and this technicality has been found. Whatever the county has asked of us, we replied. All these accusations are very sad and disheartening. I am hurt by all of these things because they’re all lies.”
The board gave the Ballentines another three-month extension for their temporary certificate of occupancy, which they need to remain open for business, until they can satisfy their final permitting requirements.
The Ballentines have to hook up to the city of St. Helena’s water system for fire hydrants and sprinklers — they have an agreement with the city for that — and finish improvements to a private access road shared with the Morlets.
Supervisors Keith Caldwell and Mark Luce advocated for shuttering William Cole temporarily until those requirements are completed, but they failed to muster a three-vote majority.
Caldwell and Luce ultimately joined Dodd and Supervisors Brad Wagenknecht and Diane Dillon in granting the extension, which will expire at the end of January.
County staff recommended that course of action, noting that the Ballentines had only a few improvements left to make before a building inspector could go out and they could receive their final certificate of occupancy.
Wagenknecht said he was troubled by shutting down William Cole so close to resolving the matter.
“I have a problem with basically putting the Ballentine winery out of business for 90 days,” Wagenknecht said. “I will not extend the time any further than the next 90 days.”
Dillon urged each side to stop fighting.
“This has to end,” Dillon said. “It really has to end.”