A group opposed to the planned Yountville Hill Winery project says it’s still deciding whether to appeal a Napa County Planning Commission decision last week to grant the project its use permit.
After hours of testimony in favor and against the project, the commissioners voted 3 to 1 on July 2 to approve the use permit. Commissioner Matt Pope proved to be the crucial vote, saving Yountville Hill from a 2-2 deadlock. Pope initially said he opposed it, but later switched to vote “yes.”
He said Thursday his biggest regret would have been to remain silent after making his initial comments. With the commissioners deadlocked, developer Eric Sklar asked for at least a two-week delay in a decision on the use permit.
Commission Chairman Bob Fiddaman granted a short recess to deliberate on that request, but when the commissioners returned Pope interjected and said he had reversed his earlier position. Pope said in an interview that by then he knew he had changed his mind and felt confident that supporting the project was the right decision.
Commissioner Heather Phillips recused herself at the start of the hearing because she’s a partner in a vineyard in the Oakville appellation, which led Lester Hardy, an attorney working for developer Sklar, to object and say she had a conflict of interest.
Phillips’ vineyard was well beyond the 500-foot buffer the county requires between her property and Sklar’s to avoid recusal, but she said she felt it necessary to excuse herself to ensure the integrity of the public hearing. Commissioners Mike Basayne and Bob Fiddaman joined Pope in supporting Yountville Hill, while Commissioner Terry Scott voted no.
That left the neighborhood group, Save Yountville Hill, debating whether to pursue an appeal to the Napa County Board of Supervisors, said Mary Ann Moffitt, who lives near the 11-acre project site off Highway 29.
On Thursday, Moffitt said they still had yet to make that decision, although they have 10 business days from the date of the hearing to file. The Board of Supervisors would then hold a hearing on the matter, deciding whether to uphold the Planning Commission’s decision or to overturn it.
Opponents raised concerns at the hearing, including the project’s anticipated impacts on traffic on Highway 29. They contended it subverted the intent of the Winery Definition Ordinance and the county’s view-shed ordinance by squeezing a relatively large production winery — 100,000 gallons — into a small site. Sklar and Hardy argued the opposite.
The winery plans to draw about 50,000 visitors annually through marketing events and trips to the winery’s tasting room, and would contain wine production within a 25,000-square-foot cave, with a 10,000-square-foot cave devoted to barrel storage. That cave would also double as an access point to the tasting room, as patrons will take an elevator up to the two-level, glass-enclosed visitor center.
Moffitt called the Planning Commission’s decision disappointing, and said her group raised legitimate concerns. She said a lawsuit challenging the project under the California Environmental Quality Act is a possibility, but they won’t consider that until after the decision on the appeal is made.
“We certainly have questions about the process, legal and otherwise,” Moffitt said. “We definitely believe there are legitimate questions and concerns about the oversized nature of that development.”
Pope said he, too, had those concerns, but ultimately came to believe that they didn’t warrant killing the project; a deadlocked vote would have required Sklar to restart the application process.
Pope reiterated comments he made at the hearing that Fiddaman, the last commissioner to speak, was instrumental in changing his mind about the way he should vote.
“By the time Bob called the recess, I knew I had changed my mind,” Pope said. “I knew it was going to be extremely uncomfortable to do so. My conscience was telling me that my first assessment was wrong. I didn’t change my vote. I changed my mind.”
Opponents had objected to the series of variances and exceptions to county rules and regulations the project will require, based on the steep terrain it proposes to build on, and the tight quarters the narrow parcel provides.
But Fiddaman rejected claims that the commissioners were routinely “rubber stamping” these requests for other winery developers. Some projects have to have them, but all provide a legal justification for doing so. It’s up to the commissioners to decide whether they’re justified, and while they’re frequently granted it’s not without deliberation, Fiddaman said.
Pope said Sklar’s variance requests were not significant, such as encroaching into the buffer zone for a driveway that’s shared with a neighbor, or having a wine cave portal within 600 feet of Highway 29. He said he doesn’t want to see variance requests “weapon-ized” as tools to kill off projects.
“Granting a variance is not rubber-stamping,” Pope said. “The variances, in my mind, were all pretty minor. The variance aspect was too weak to kill this project.”
A defunct bed and breakfast currently sits on the site, and Pope said he believes a winery will be a much better use of that site. He noted that a new developer could come along and resurrect the bed and breakfast, which is an overnight-hospitality function the county tries to keep within cities’ limits in Napa County.
He also liked the fact that the project’s construction, production and visitation will be phased in over the coming years, and that the planning commissioners will be able to review it before the next phase begins to ensure it’s complying with the conditions of the use permit.
Moreover, he saw the delay Sklar asked for as unusual, but ultimately meaningless. Opponents strenuously objected to it, saying it was like an attorney trying to introduce new evidence at a trial when a jury had already rendered its verdict.
Months of meetings between Sklar and the opponents had preceded the hearing, and Pope said he felt both sides were too entrenched to make many new concessions.
He said a broader policy debate focusing on the appropriate parcel size for a winery and a litany of other topics related to the impacts of winery development needs to happen before the Board of Supervisors, which has directed staff to examine those topics and report back with recommendations this fall.
But in the meantime that debate is playing out before the Planning Commission, as last week’s meeting was the latest in a series of meetings that have ramped up the stakes — and subsequently the rhetoric — for each side.
The commission hearing room was overflowing with people, and the meeting was delayed at one point so people could move to overflow areas in other parts of the county Administration Building to avoid violating the fire code.
Pope called the intense public scrutiny of winery development “the new normal,” and a marked shift from just a few years ago, when projects like Yountville Hill were approved over little to no objections.
“They were fairly business-as-usual projects, but now they’re fairly contentious debates,” Pope said. “(The scrutiny) comes with the territory when you have to make these decisions. It really highlights where we are in the valley right now. It’s going to be really, really ramped up.”