NAPA — The ongoing debate on the pace and scale of winery development in the Napa Valley continued before the Board of Supervisors on Tuesday, with one supervisor asking if a moratorium on winery permits is needed.
Three winery projects approved by the county Planning Commission in the last year have been appealed, and Planning Director David Morrison told the supervisors he expects three more appeals to be filed.
Given those circumstances, Supervisor Keith Caldwell asked if the county should suspend processing winery permits until any changes to its rules and regulations can be adopted. Morrison responded that the county can’t change the way it processes applications already on file, and isn’t planning to do a review of the cumulative environmental impacts of winery development in the county.
The county’s cornerstone regulation for winery permits is the 1990 Winery Definition Ordinance, and Morrison and his staff have been analyzing trends in permits and potential changes to the law in recent months. A community forum will be held in mid-November to gauge what the public and the industry want to see happen with how development is regulated, Morrison said.
A committee would be set up after that to examine the potential changes and make recommendations to the Planning Commission and Board of Supervisors, he said.
Supervisor Mark Luce said he wants debate over those changes to focus on whether wineries have enough capacity to process Napa Valley grapes, not if the county has enough to satisfy the flow of tourists, or if growth in the industry has happened too quickly.
Luce, a former county planning commissioner in the late 1980s, said the original context of the WDO was that wineries should be considered industrial processing centers for agricultural products, making them worthy of being in the Agricultural Preserve.
“Maybe we’re at capacity,” Luce said. “Something that answers the question, ‘should we be building more wineries?’ I know we’ve addressed that over the years. Now’s the time to check in.”
Calls to loosen or restrict the WDO’s regulations have arisen sporadically in the almost 25 years since its passage, and Supervisor Brad Wagenknecht noted that the last time, in 2010, was during the bottom of the economic recession. That led people to call for wineries to be able to host weddings, and other wine industry-friendly changes.
Wagenknecht said the board resisted swinging too far in that direction four years ago, just as it should with the economy in Napa Valley now booming and the public calling to restrict winery development.
“We’ve traditionally in Napa tried to measure twice and cut once,” Wagenknecht said. “That’s what we’re trying to do now. We need to look at the right stuff and make an informed decision.”
Morrison cited statistics that reflected how the improved economic conditions have led wealthy people to invest money in developing wineries in Napa Valley. Since 2010, the county Planning Commission has approved 79 winery applications, but the pace has quickened in the last two years, he said.
County planners approved about 15 per year through 2012, but they’re now giving their OK to 23 wineries per year, an increase of about 50 percent, Morrison said. It’s also seen an increase in the visitation requests and production capacities sought, but that trend has been skewed higher by 12 to 15 projects that have been much larger than others.
Those projects have taken the most staff time while requiring the most analysis, and generating public controversy. Some have been approved but were quickly appealed based on their size, because they sought variances to county rules, or other issues.
Some members of the public took issue with findings of a recent anonymous audit the county performs on 20 wineries each year. The results of the 2013 audit showed eight out of 20 wineries had some sort of violation of their use permit, although they varied widely in the severity of the violation.
Proponents of restricting the WDO cited that in telling the supervisors that the county wasn’t enforcing the rules it already has on the books, even as it considers meaningful changes to them.
Dan Mufson, an Atlas Peak Road resident, said areas of the county are already experiencing severe strains from the severe drought plaguing California, including the Berryessa Estates community and some parts of Mount Veeder.
“We are in an exceptional drought,” Mufson said. “We are losing control of the transition from family farms to mega corporations based in Texas and New York.”
St. Helena resident Geoff Ellsworth called for curbing growth in the wine industry to prevent future impacts to groundwater, traffic, hillside deforestation for vineyard planting, and other effects.
“The use of water is staggering,” Ellsworth said. “I support agriculture. I don’t believe hillside deforestation is a part of that. I don’t think it reflects well on the Napa Valley brand.”
Steve Moulds, president of the Napa Valley Grape Growers, said re-examining the WDO should be an opportunity to step up enforcement among wineries that stretch its provisions too far or just outright ignore them.
The law sets forth that wineries maintain a connection to agriculture, but Moulds said some have used a permission for food and wine pairings to set up full-scale restaurant service, or conduct retail sales that have no connection to wine.
“The Napa Valley Grape Growers have asked for years for more enforcement,” Moulds said. “The wine industry has grown dramatically. Our land is finite. Our land, our water, or scenic views are also finite.”
Napa Valley vintners advised a cautious, analytical and data-driven approach to changing the provisions of the WDO, so that wineries that stay well within the rules aren’t unduly punished by the actions or violations of a few.
“We have done an amazing job in the last 40 years,” said John Trefethen, owner of Trefethen Vineyards. “We have to now manage our success. There are many more people that live here. There are many more people that commute here. All of that is the result of the success. Balance will prevail.”
Supervisor Bill Dodd said he isn’t willing to blame growth in the wine industry for the Napa Valley’s traffic woes, and said the public should consider its benefits before indicting perceived negative effects.
“I think we have to be very, very careful about the indictment of the industry that has propelled this valley into what it is today,” Dodd said.