The approval of the Davies Family Winery expansion didn’t represent the end of St. Helena as we know it.
But that doesn’t mean it was a great idea.
Last week’s full-page ad from Citizens’ Voice St. Helena laid out the opposition’s case, which culminated in litigation asking a judge to overturn the City Council’s decision.
The ad included the names of more than 130 people who share concerns about the project. These aren’t fringe characters.
Most of them we recognized as well-respected, thoughtful citizens who have good historical knowledge of what makes St. Helena tick, and who aren’t known for talking out of their proverbial hats. Some — Andy Beckstoffer, Robin Lail, Leslie Rudd, John Shafer — are big names in the wine industry who care deeply about the Napa Valley and its Ag Preserve.
We discussed the project on Friday and discovered that we share some, though not all, of the concerns expressed in the ad. On the positive side, the project’s design is tasteful and the Davies family has a laudable track record of community involvement and responsible land stewardship.
However, we think there’s a good case to be made that this project’s impacts, especially on traffic and parking, deserve more study.
In a broader sense, the project raises unanswered questions about the city’s policies toward wineries. A small winery producing wine from grapes grown on-site is one thing, but a medium-sized production facility and tasting room that’s not connected with a vineyard is quite another.
The Planning Commission and City Council rightfully spent a lot of time talking about traffic. The mitigated negative declaration, and environmental review document that’s much less extensive than an EIR, concluded that the impact on traffic would be mitigated by the new traffic light being installed this spring at Highway 29 and Grayson Avenue.
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However, the study didn’t make clear how it arrived at its conclusions. It’s hard to predict exactly how the light is going to affect traffic, other than slow it down and make it easier to turn off and onto Grayson. It would be ideal, if maybe not totally realistic, to observe the light in action for at least a few months to measure its capacity before adding more cars to that intersection.
Parking is another valid concern. There are only 24 on-site parking spaces, but various neighboring property owners have assured that the winery can use their lots for overflow parking during events.
That’s a great idea, but it’s unclear whether the extra parking will be available in perpetuity and how many pedestrians it will add to the new intersection. Are these informal agreements that could be revoked at any time? It would have been nice to see a more detailed parking plan before approving the project, rather than allowing the details to be worked out later.
Opponents’ hearts were in the right place when they asked the City Council to let the lawsuit in Napa Superior Court go unchallenged and leave the matter up to a judge. But as City Attorney Tom Brown explained at last week’s council meeting, the project’s conditions require the applicants to defend the city against litigation at their own expense.
It’s too bad that all these issues will play out in legal briefs rather than in public meetings, but that’s the way the system works.
The production increase from 20,000 to 75,000 gallons doesn’t seem unreasonable. But the city’s winery policies aren’t adequate to judge whether the marketing events and the 160 visitors per day are overly aggressive or simply represent how the wine industry works in the 21st century.
There’s one question at the crux of this issue throughout Napa County: Are wineries an agricultural or industrial use?
Without conclusively answering that question and reaching consensus on new policies, major winery projects are destined to be just as divisive as this one.