Timber conversion in Angwin

The development of a vineyard happened recently through a legal “timber conversion” project in Angwin.

Environmental groups say they’re worried a recent Napa County court decision will make it harder for them to get new initiatives on the ballot.

Backers of the “Water, Forest and Oak Woodland Protection Initiative” are asking the state Court of Appeals to overturn the rejection of their initiative, allowing their measure to go to the voters, whether this election or next. Their measure increases the restrictions on development around streams on the county’s hillsides. They filed their formal appeal to the First District Court of Appeals last week.

An amicus brief filed with the court by five environmental groups supports the overturn of the Napa decision. This brief contends that “[a]ll of our appellate courts have consistently held that the Constitution’s initiative and referendum provisions should be liberally construed to maintain maximum power in the people and that ‘any doubts should be resolved in favor of the exercise of these rights.’”

Proponents Mike Hackett and Jim Wilson collected more than 6,000 signatures for the initiative. Napa County Registrar of Voters John Tuteur certified the signatures, but subsequently refused to place the initiative on the Nov. 8 ballot after the County’s legal counsel, Minh Tran, determined that an eight-page appendix from a previous county plan was missing. That appendix was a list of “Sustainable Best Management Practices” from the 2010 “Voluntary Oak Woodland Management Plan.”

Hackett and Wilson said that the appendix was never intended to be part of the initiative, but was referenced merely as an example. They took Tuteur’s decision to Napa Superior Court, but Judge Diane Price sided with the county registrar.

Now, in their amicus brief to the appellate court, the five environmental groups said that Judge Diane Price failed consider the legal “standards and precedents” that should have guided her decision. These five groups are Forests Forever, Inc., The California Wildlife Foundation, Corporate Ethics International, Forests Unlimited and The California Native Plant Society.

They said they feared the potential legal precedent if the Napa Superior Court’s decision is upheld based upon this “extreme interpretation of the full text rule.” They, too, want the appeals court to overrule the lower court.

According to their understanding, the decision by the Napa Superior Court would become a legal precedent, if upheld by the appellate court, creating confusion about the precise requirements necessary to successfully create any voter-sponsored initiative.

David A. Carrillo, executive director of the California Constitution Center at Berkeley Law, examined the question of precedent and said, “By itself, this trial court decision does not make new law. Absent an appellate decision upholding the (Napa) Superior Court order on the merits, it is not binding on any other judges or cases.”

However, Carrillo added that judges on the Napa bench may adopt the decision as a matter of local practice. This is the potential obstacle for future Napa County initiatives.

Hackett said the move to the appellate court is to preserve the certifications of signatures collected, and that if the Napa court decision is overturned, he expects the initiative will appear on the 2018 ballot.

A date for the appellate court hearing has not yet been published.

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Tom Stockwell is currently a staff writer for the St. Helena Star. He is an author of fiction and non-fiction books and has been a working journalist for a variety of technical publications as well as a consultant for numerous wineries in the Napa Valley.