Uncertainty is a bad thing in both business and politics.

Napa County’s system for granting permits for wineries and other buildings, and its approach to dealing with later violations of those permits, has created uncertainty in both arenas, and it is time for that to end.

The Napa County Board of Supervisors has agreed to take a more systematic approach to issuing permits and draw a harder line for those that break the rules. They have set a March 27, 2018 deadline for permit holders to come clean and bring their operations into compliance under the older, more lenient attitude, which has emphasized modifying permits to meet the facts on the ground rather than on fines or punishment for rule breakers.

After March 27, supervisors promise a much more black-and-white approach to code compliance, including fines, strict monitoring, and what amounts to a probation period for permit violators.

Most of the public attention on code violations lately has been on wineries, but the new rules will apply to any kind of permits issued in the unincorporated county, from houses to businesses to wineries.

We applaud the board’s decision on this matter – it is a good start in creating a less confusing situation for winery and business owners, and for restoring public confidence in our political system, which has been shaken by a series of instances where the planning commission and supervisors appeared to be soft on flagrant violations of use permits.

We have heard from winery owners and county planners alike that the traditional way of drafting permits is confusing – there has never been such a thing as a standard permit for wineries, meaning the documents are often unclear and contradictory, making compliance difficult. Winery owners say they have also gotten mixed messages on code compliance, with county officials encouraging them to come forward to fix past code violations, only to be thrust into an expensive, unpredictable, and humiliating public process to do so.

We have heard from community groups who are outraged when egregious code violators are rewarded with retroactive forgiveness by elected officials.

We have heard from industry groups, who worry that the high-profile stories of bad actors, who find it easier to beg for forgiveness than seek permission, tarnish the responsible majority of their members.

These are the downsides of uncertainty in this important process and we hope the new regulatory regime will satisfy all these groups.

But the devil, as always, is in the details.

While the supervisors have made their intentions clear, the exact form of this new era in code enforcement is still in flux.

The Editorial Board met this week with county officials, including Board of Supervisors Chairwoman Belia Ramos and acting County CEO Minh Tran. They told us that staff is still developing the specific rules for code enforcement and for standardizing use permits.

It was not clear from our discussion, therefore, exactly how all this will work. They were able to articulate how the county might deal with relatively straightforward code violations, such as exceeding a winery’s annual visitor cap – in that case, the winery owner would have to roll back to the permitted level and hold to it strictly for at least a year before the county would even consider granting an increase.

But what about more serious violations, such as digging an unpermitted wine cave? As Ramos rightly pointed out, it is impossible to “un-dig” that cave, and both she and Tran said the county would be cognizant of the economic effect of code compliance decisions on a property owner. We came away not entirely sure how the supervisors and staff would approach such serious violations.

We think the staff and supervisors are on the right track here, but we urge them to proceed carefully as they develop their new approach. The rules drafted by staff must be clear and as easy to understand as possible. The actions the planning commission and supervisors take after March 27 must adhere closely to those rules and must be consistent and transparent.

Otherwise, we will just be substituting one era of uncertainty for another.

The Napa Valley Register Editorial Board consists of Publisher Brenda Speth, Editor Sean Scully, and public members Cindy Webber, Ed Shenk, Mary Jean Mclaughlin and Chris Hammaker.

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