Improving the quality of life in the community and providing equal protection to everyone under the law are goals that I believe we all share. Ensuring compliance is essential to the Napa County Board of Supervisors and Planning, Building, and Environmental Services (PBES). Defining our common values is much easier, however, than the hard work needed to make these visions a reality.
The belief that asking for forgiveness rather than permission is business-as-usual for Napa County is not accurate.
Many winery-related violations are resolved without the need to modify use permits. It is useful to look at recent history to gain some perspective. Over the past three years, Napa County code compliance staff have received about 1,000 complaints. Of those, approximately 60 were related to winery operations. During that same time, the Planning Commission considered 58 new or major modifications of use permits associated with wineries. Nearly 75 percent of these applications did not have a pending violation. Of the remaining 15 applications that were submitted to remedy a violation, two were denied by the Planning Commission.
Wineries that don’t follow the rules certainly feel the consequences. There are numerous cases where wineries were required to tear down illegal buildings, seal up an illegal cave portal, and restore vineyards to their previous natural state. In many cases, these actions are accompanied by substantial fines. The rules are being enforced.
It is important to also address the misconception that a winery use permit or major modification is easily approved. On average in recent years, it takes a project 1.7 years from the time that the application is submitted to the county to the time of its first public hearing. The majority of that time is spent evaluating the application for accuracy, consistency, and completeness.
Once a project gets to hearing, it may be continued one or more times, adding further weeks or months to the timeline. An appeal of the decision to the Board of Supervisors may add yet another four to six months. If that decision is then litigated, court cases can take years to resolve. Throughout this process, the applicant is responsible for not only the costs of their consultants and lawyers, but for all costs incurred by the county as well.
This level of effort is appropriate given the controversial nature of some use permits. Over the past three years, a dozen Planning Commission decisions regarding winery use permits have been appealed, with almost half of the appeals occuring in 2017. Several of these have gone to court.
The county employs six staff whose only job is to apply the County Code equally to all landowners. This year, they will investigate more than 350 complaints. This is in addition to the thousands of annual inspections carried out by county engineers, building inspectors, environmental health specialists, and planners. Our department takes pride in ensuring that the rules are enforced fairly and firmly to everyone.
Use permit applications are technically complex and often require the assistance of skilled engineers, hydrologists, planners, architects, lawyers and consultants. In addition, many of these firms are in high demand and are not immediately available. Setting a deadline one month away is not realistic and would do nothing to provide any meaningful voluntary compliance.
Moreover, the Board of Supervisors continues to clearly demonstrate that it views code compliance as a serious matter. Over the past three years, the county has significantly strengthened enforcement. The number of compliance staff have doubled from three to six, and are now a separate division within PBES. All compliance staff are in the process of obtaining their certification. Last year, the board adopted an ordinance to allow Notices of Violation to be recorded against property title. This year, the Board adopted a comprehensive Code Compliance Manual outlining enforcement policies and procedures.
As a result of these efforts, the number of compliance cases since 2014 has been reduced from 986 to 676. This reduction occurred even while at the same time the number of new cases increased from 305 to over 350. Even with the progress that has been achieved to date, the Board will be conducting a workshop on Sept. 12, regarding additional direction to staff to further enhance the compliance program.
I hope that members of the public, responsible wine industry leaders, and the county will continue to work together to develop constructive strategies for improving code enforcement, and ensure a safe and sustainable Napa Valley.
David Morrison, Director
Planning, Building, and Environmental Services