The long-running debate over how to best protect Napa County’s rural woodlands and watersheds culminated in an ordinance passed March 26 by the Board of Supervisors, which sought an ever-elusive balance between those calling for stricter curbs to protect water and air quality and those wary of undermining the valley’s economic backbone of wine grapes.
After 10 hours, 12 minutes and more than five dozen public speakers, supervisors seeking that middle course accepted increased requirements for preserving trees and replacing cut-down ones for vineyards and other development in watershed areas, but decided against a complete ban on projects on ground steeper than 30 percent.
The ordinance passed unanimously by the board raises the required woodland replacement ratio in watershed zones from 2 to 1 to 3 to 1, although applicants can win the lower ratio by offering a public benefit such as conservation easements around a nature trail. The minimum vegetation canopy area that must be preserved also was raised from 60 to 70 percent in such areas.
Development setbacks will include a 50-foot zone from wetlands, although that buffer may be shortened if recommended by a qualified biologist.
Left untouched was a county policy of allowing development of sites sloped between 30 and 50 percent with a county permit.
Reservoirs serving four of the county’s five cities also gained minimum setbacks in the ordinance, which faces a second approval vote by supervisors on April 9. Buffers will extend 500 feet from Kimball and Bell Canyon reservoirs, which respectively serve Calistoga and St. Helena, and 250 feet from Rector Reservoir outside Yountville as well as from the city of Napa’s two local sources, Lake Hennessey and Milliken Reservoir.
The outsize audience prompted the county to open overflow rooms with video screens for late-arriving spectators, including one space inside the public library, and parking time limits outside the county’s Third Street administration building were not enforced during the marathon session.
Ahead of the meeting, the Center for Biological Diversity had sent out a press release deriding the watershed and tree protection ordinance as “watered-down” and “a fig leaf” and called for a more robust law. Meanwhile, a mailer sent by to rural property owners by county resident George Bachich, a member of the Napa Valley Land Steward Alliance, called the ordinance a threat to property rights.
Supervisors’ latest balancing act may prove less a resolution than another chapter in the debate. Those who oppose the watershed and woodland ordinance either as too soft on deforestation or too intrusive for farmers may mount a ballot initiative to take their cause back to Napa County voters, who narrowly defeated the Measure C woodland protection initiative in June 2018.