A long-simmering dispute between two neighboring winery owners north of St. Helena figures to spill out before the Board of Supervisors, with attorneys for each side engaging in a war of words before the hearing Tuesday.
The supervisors are being asked to rule on a building permit for Bill and Jane Ballentine granted this year for their winery, William Cole, which was issued after Napa County had to file a lawsuit against them.
Luc and Jodie Morlet, owners of Morlet Family Vineyards just to the south, have appealed the issuance of that permit. They argue that the settlement of the lawsuit let the Ballentines conduct their business while letting them off the hook for making improvements and meeting requirements that were part of their original use permit, issued in 2002, said the Morlets’ attorney, Paul Carey.
Attorney Jim Rose, representing the Ballentines, counters that the lawsuit’s settlement, which allowed for the building permit to be issued, and subsequent direction from county staff prove they’re complying with county standards. The Morlets’ appeal is proof they’re taking the issue personally, Rose said.
“This is just a personal thing with the Morlets,” Rose said. “So why are they so concerned about the William Cole Winery? They are trying to drive them out of business.”
Carey said the issue is one of fairness, and of the county applying standards and regulations equitably to all wineries.
“(The Morlets) want the county to treat everyone fairly and equally,” Carey said. “It’s not about the Hatfields and the McCoys. It’s not about Bill Ballentine and their family, or the Morlets and their family.”
County staff, the arbiters in the matter, state that they’ve followed the correct procedures in issuing the building permit, and question whether the Morlets have proper standing to appeal the permit’s issuance.
The Board of Supervisors will have to hear testimony in favor of each side in the dispute, and then offer a tentative decision on the appeal.
William Cole received its use permit in 2002, following a process to amend the county’s Winery Definition Ordinance to allow a winery on a property smaller than 10 acres. The winery, first built in 1876, had enough historical significance to warrant the exception, the Ballentines argued.
At this point, the Ballentines have received a residential permit, but not a commercial permit, for the stone structure.
Carey said they should have known they would need a commercial permit since their intent was to operate a winery open to the public. Rose counters that they simply followed the direction of a member of the Planning Department staff, who pulled out a residential building permit. The Ballentines completed that, were approved, and operated their winery.
In January 2008, developer Bryant Morris got approval for a use permit to open the winery now owned by the Morlets, which was also historic and dates back to 1880. Morris had approval for 20,000 gallons of production.
The Ballentines appealed that use permit, unsuccessfully, to the Board of Supervisors, according to records filed in Napa County Superior Court. Two years later, with the permit scheduled to expire in August 2010, the Morlets got a one-year extension.
The Morlets got approval for a major modification to their use permit, allowing them to install a 1,400-square-foot crush pad, a water storage tank pad, and improvements to their wastewater treatment system. Subsequent plans included installing wine caves.
Bill Ballentine again objected, arguing that the improvements — and their associated traffic — would make the private access road he shares with the Morlets unsafe.
He sued the county and the Morlets in October 2011, but former Superior Court Judge Ray Guadagni tossed the lawsuit, saying the lawsuit wasn’t a timely challenge and the county’s actions were legitimate.
By this time, the county was aware that the Ballentines had received the wrong permit for William Cole.
“When you live in glass houses, you’ve got to be careful about throwing stones,” Carey said.
In trying to resolve the issue, the county and the Ballentines came to be at odds over whether a fire-protection sprinkler system needed to be installed for William Cole’s historic stone building.
That wasn’t required when the use permit was first approved in 2002, but by then it was required.
“This is a stone building that was built in 1876,” Rose said. “There is literally nothing in that building that can burn. The Ballentines did everything that their original use permit required.”
The Morlets and Carey disagree, and feel that William Cole has been operating without satisfying the requirements, while other wineries have to meet those standards.
“This is not about ‘don’t make wine,’ ” Carey said. “It’s about being open to the public and doing tours and tastings. We want the county to treat everybody the same.”
The county sued William Cole this year, and the lawsuit was settled in June, with the Ballentines agreeing to apply for a temporary certificate of occupancy and pay a $15,000 fine. Staff signed off on that document, as well as the building permit, in late July and early August.
“Given how far the winery has come toward bringing their use permit into compliance, staff believe the most prudent course would be to allow the winery to complete the few improvements they have remaining, to inspect those improvements for completion, and once found complete, issue the final certificate of occupancy,” a county staff report states.