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Beringer Vineyards

Fermentation tanks at Beringer Vineyards on Pratt Avenue in St. Helena.

A Napa Superior Court judge issued a ruling Nov. 7 siding with neighbors who sued the city of St. Helena over changes at the Beringer Vineyards tank farm on Pratt Avenue.

Judge Victoria Wood’s ruling rejects the city’s argument that the replacement of eight large wine fermentation tanks with 130 smaller tanks was a “minor” alteration that qualified for a categorical exemption from the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA).

City Manager Mark Prestwich said the city still isn’t certain about the practical implications of the ruling. Beringer neighbor Anthony Micheli, speaking on behalf of the group that filed the lawsuit, said the judgement nullifies the city’s approval of the project, which Beringer has already completed.

“This means they have to go back to square one,” Micheli said.

He said he’s willing to negotiate with Beringer toward an agreement that would allow the winery to keep using the new tanks temporarily in exchange for restarting the CEQA process, applying for a use permit amendment, and in the meantime abiding by the traffic, water and other limitations described in a 1974 environmental impact report for the winery.

“We’re not trying to put them out of business,” Micheli said. “All we want them to do is respect this city and (recognize) the mess that’s been created on Pratt due to them. ... The impact they’ve caused on this city is not right. We’re just asking them to be a good neighbor.”

Treasury Wine Estates, Beringer’s parent company, plans to appeal.

“Treasury Wine Estates received all necessary approvals from the City of St. Helena for modifications to its luxury wine production facilities at its Beringer winery prior to the project commencing,” said Debra Dommen, vice president for government and industry affairs for Treasury Wine Estates.

“TWE respectfully disagrees with the administrative court’s ruling that the St. Helena City Council did not apply the proper standard of review to its permits. TWE will appeal the court’s decision against the City. TWE remains committed to ongoing cooperation and partnership with the community and to producing celebrated luxury wines.”

The St. Helena Planning Commission approved design review for the project in April 2017. Micheli appealed to the City Council, which upheld the ruling in June 2017. Micheli and a group of residents, calling themselves Citizens for Responsible Winery Growth in St. Helena, subsequently filed the lawsuit.

During public hearings, city staff and attorneys said Beringer’s plans could be covered by a CEQA exemption and design review, but neighbors pushed for a use permit amendment and a more thorough analysis of the project’s effects on traffic, noise and other impacts.

Although the changes would slightly decrease the facility’s overall wine production, neighbors argued that the smaller tanks would result in greater impact. Wood’s ruling made a similar point.

“The project’s plan to change the operation to produce multiple brands’ wines (up to 130 with the proposed tanks), each with individual fermentation, bottling, labeling and packaging needs, would axiomatically expand beyond a negligible degree the existing use of producing one brand’s wine from only eight tanks,” Wood wrote.

According to the ruling, the city lacked adequate evidence to determine that the project would not have a significant cumulative impact on traffic. The ruling “requires that the cumulative impacts question be answered through proper initial study assessment and consideration of conditional mitigation measures, if any,” Wood wrote.

On Nov. 1, Wood issued a tentative ruling siding with the city, and both sides made oral arguments at a hearing the next day. The final ruling, which came to the opposite conclusion, was issued on Nov. 7.

Prestwich said the council will discuss the ruling in closed session, and he hasn’t received any council direction yet on whether to appeal.

As the applicant, Treasury Wine Estates is responsible for paying the city’s legal expenses related to the case.

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St. Helena Reporter

Jesse has been a reporter for the St. Helena Star since 2006.