Editor's note: This letter was sent to the Napa Valley Register in response to the same article that is on page A1 of today's Weekly Calistogan.
Monday morning's Register offered a slight glimmer of hope (“Planning Commission delays winery vote," Dec. 22).
In 25 years of working for responsible and ecologically sound development I have learned many things. Like most citizens I believed in a process where the citizenry would have a say and an opportunity to impact the process. I now see how naïve I was.
In an audit of all the minutes of all the Planning Commission meetings from August 2011 through Sept. 17, 2014, there were 46 winery and 17 other commercial projects seeking new use permits, or expansion or modification of existing permits. So a total of 63 projects. In all cases the Planning Department recommended adoption of the negative declarations and that the Use Permit be approved. In several cases the matter was continued from meeting to meeting.
But in EVERY case where a vote was taken the commission voted for approval. Now in the past 25 years there may have been a couple of projects turned down but by and large the public needs to know that projects will be approved. In general the applicants ask for more than what they want engaging in the “game” of making concessions in a semblance of the public having an impact. Sometimes the public does have an impact, but mostly it is minimal at best.
So here is my list of what the public needs to know:
1. Developers, applicants and their cadre of consultants misrepresent the facts as a matter of doing business. The reason they can do so is that public hearings are not conducted under oath so there is no accountability.
2. The county is worried foremost not with the public but with being sued by developers.
3. Follow the money. Their is a huge industry that depends on more development. Planners, attorneys, engineers, consultants, hydrologists, contractors, builders, designers, architects, etc., are all part of the vested interests that benefit from more and more and more.
4. Developers purchase access with their fees. And they get it. Projects are pulled until agreements can be hammered out and most of these happen with very little input, if any, from the public.
5. Much of the process is discretionary. Even after the hard-fought battles when the public does have an impact, the truth is major changes to what was approved routinely happen at the discretion of the staff.
6. Zoning codes and use permits are subject to the interpretation of county officials. Let this be a warning to the Yountville Hill opponents. Plants that might eventually screen the winery may be allowed to meet the conditions of the Viewshed Ordinance, even though they may not provide the required screening for many years, if ever.
If you want to oppose the proliferation of wineries masquerading as agriculture and aid in the protection of our groundwater and watersheds there are two ways citizens can be successful. One is to have very deep pockets and hire attorneys, and expert consultants to give commissioners and supervisors testimony on which to deny or downsize inappropriate projects. Or citizens can organize and use the referendum process to pass more stringent protections.
The county is too dependent on the fees and tax revenue to turn off the spigot. And they are too fearful of being sued. Traffic is already at the worst level on many county roads. The result? Traffic studies will always find that a new project has an insignificant cumulative impact because you can't make it perceptibly worse.
Even highly touted spot winery production audits had only 40 percent compliance and according to the minutes no formal action by planning commissioners was taken. The zoning enforcement process is complaint driven and it's basically a truck full of carrots and very few sticks.
I do not oppose careful, environmentally sound development. I do oppose the process whereby more and more and more is nearly always approved without regard to the rights of the citizenry. And the “more” is everything from more and deeper wells to more tourist centers (wineries) masquerading as agricultural use.
It's time to close the door and say enough is enough. More wineries only hurt the ones we have in an ever-shrinking pie where wineries must become Disneylands in order to attract their share of customers.
Is more wineries, more traffic, more denuded hillsides what the citizens want? If not it's time to organize not in fighting individual projects but by having a real impact on the future of the valley.
Wheaton lives in St. Helena.