Napa County has reached agreements on lawsuits it filed against two wineries. A third lawsuit is still pending.
The county filed suit against Kelham Vineyards & Winery and William Cole Vineyards of St. Helena in April, alleging that the wineries didn’t have the proper certificates of occupancy and that Kelham needed new building permits.
Agreements have been reached on both suits, although the county’s suit against Altamura Winery in Wooden Valley is still proceeding, with the county alleging the winery lacked the proper permits.
Attorney Jim Rose said Tuesday that the owners of Kelham submitted plans to the county to get its proper certificates and permits, and the county has approved them.
“They’re legally operating and selling wine,” Rose said.
He said the owners had to install a fire alarm system on their property, and had to wait to schedule time for building inspectors to come out.
While the lawsuit technically remains open, Kelham and the county are wrapping up a settlement agreement, Rose said.
The county has settled its lawsuit against William Cole, with the winery agreeing to apply for a temporary certificate of occupancy and pay the county $15,000, according to court documents. The fine will be split up into $3,751 installments, with the final one due in June 2014.
Failing to honor the agreement would expose William Cole to a heavier fine of $70,000, according to records filed in Napa County Superior Court. The company has to get the temporary certificate of occupancy before using the property for commercial activity.
A neighbor to William Cole, Morlet Family Estate, attempted to join the county’s lawsuit against William Cole, and tried to block the settlement until it had received restitution for the winery allegedly operating in violation of the Napa County Code.
That attempt was rebuffed, however, and representatives for Morlet withdrew their motion in July.
The lawsuit against William Cole drew the ire of former county Supervisor Mel Varrelman, who argued before the Board of Supervisors in June that suing wineries was too punitive an action to resolve compliance issues.
Varrelman told the board that William Cole’s owners, William and Jane Ballentine, had received the wrong permit — not a commercial use permit — in 2002. In trying to resolve the issue, the county required the winery to install a fire suppression system, which the Ballentines contend would compromise the historic integrity of the 19th century winery.
The effects of the lawsuit, Varrelman argued, was to create a chilling effect on small wineries in Napa County. He urged the board to hear the disputes and make findings, rather than having the matters taken to court.
County Planning Director Hillary Gitelman disagreed, saying the county only files suit after working with the wineries to voluntarily bring them into compliance.
Gitelman said she was pleased to see the lawsuit resolved without having to go to a trial.
“We’re always pleased when we can resolve something in an agreement,” Gitelman said. “It really is only in extraordinary circumstances that we resort to litigation.”
The county’s suit against Altamura Winery is still proceeding.
In May, the winery was ordered not to occupy the cave on its property until it obtained a temporary certificate of occupancy. The county alleged that Altamura’s cave was unauthorized, and required it to apply for a use-permit modification and a building permit for the plumbing, electrical and mechanical systems in the cave.
Altamura agreed to do those by a June 20 deadline, and filed on June 19 a response to the lawsuit’s complaint saying it had applied. But the owners, Frank and Karen Altamura, said in the filing that they didn’t believe the county would apply the original building code standards to the cave work.
The filing asserts that the Altamuras will defend themselves against the lawsuit’s allegations. It says the county ultimately issued a building permit for the property, and thus acknowledged an inspection of the plumbing, electrical and mechanical systems for the cave.
The Altamuras alleged that the county consistently misinformed them about the governing building code for their property.