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Permission vs. forgiveness on Sulphur Creek in St. Helena

Permission vs. forgiveness on Sulphur Creek in St. Helena

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As a 40-year resident of St. Helena, I have watched with dismay how many winery and other types of developers within the county have undertaken actions either without permit or in excess of their permissible uses. Too often, when and if violations come to light, the county or city simply provides forgiveness in the form of retroactive fees and/or modifies the use permit to match whatever activity exceeded the prior permit.

This spring, I first noticed that a significant new vineyard development was underway along Sulphur Creek to the west of the South Crane Avenue bridge, extending almost to Sulphur Springs Avenue on land owned by St. Helena Cemetery Association. This formerly undeveloped land runs mostly under major PG&E high voltage transmission lines. It was once owned by environmentalist Peter Mennen, who sought to protect it and even funded an oak tree restoration effort on the flood terrace.

Over the years, I, like many of my neighbors, have enjoyed walking and birding along this reach of the creek as it recovered from years of gravel extraction, and the riparian vegetation regenerated. During the fall and winter high water events, both steelhead trout and Chinook salmon come up through this braided stretch of the creek to spawn upstream or in the Heath Canyon tributary. Just this past week I observed deer, coyote, raptors, swallows, and, in isolated pools, young steelhead hoping to survive until the fall rains release them to carry on their life cycle.

So, when I first heard and then saw heavy duty tractors ripping the soil on the terraces south of the bank and noticed that large boulders and huge chunks of old concrete were being pushed or thrown over the edge of the bank into the creek with no visible erosion control measures in place, I documented some of what I had witnessed. Next, I sent my concerns to both the City of St. Helena and the California Department of Fish & Wildlife (CDFW). To their credit, the City promptly did an inspection, and Public Works issued a stop work order on March 23, 2020. A CDFW warden visited as well and referred the matter to his Department’s Habitat Conservation Division. In addition, the Regional Water Quality Control Board (RWQCB) also got involved.

At this juncture, it is my understanding that neither the St. Helena Cemetery Association (land owner/lessor), nor a long-time Napa County farming family (lessee), nor the well established vineyard management company hired by the lessee to develop the vineyard sought permits or even thought to see if they were necessary or had been obtained by any of the other parties working on the project.

Quite frankly, after checking the list of Cemetery Board members, I find it astonishing that among such a qualified group of local leaders and business people that no one thought that grading land and developing vineyards adjacent to a Class I stream within City limits might require a permit. Subsequently, others have pointed out that an entirely separate vineyard development project (completed only a few years ago on Cemetery land) on the north side of Sulphur Creek was also done without a permit.

My follow-up emails with the City indicate that its position is simply that they will retroactively issue a grading permit for all the earth moving and contouring that has occurred and that the other agencies will take the lead on any environmental matters as pertains to the South bank project. So far, the City has not shown any interest in investigating the older North bank development.

Regarding the CDFW response, the environmental scientist handling the complaint said that a retroactive Lake and Streambed Alteration Agreement (1602) will be issued that will require removal of rock and concrete by October 2020 and further inspection to determine if riparian re-vegetation will be required. I don’t know where the Clean Water Act 401 permit from the RWQCB stands.

It is disheartening that during this time, when everyone’s environmental concerns ought to outweigh “the bottom line,” to see that it’s business as usual for both violators and policing bodies. For me, it is especially upsetting given the fact that Sulphur Creek is arguably the most important steelhead habitat in Napa County and that the City’s General Plan and Pedestrian Element call for developing a walking path or corridor along this section of the Creek. I would encourage all the parties involved with or caring about the land along Sulphur Creek to come together and find common ground that both protects the riparian and aquatic resources as well as providing access for community enjoyment.

Richard Seiferheld

St. Helena

Here's a response from John M. Sales, president of the St. Helena Cemetery Association:

Thank you for the opportunity to respond to the letter you have received regarding the vineyard planting on the St. Helena Cemetery Association property adjacent to Sulphur Creek. This property was acquired in 2013 through a generous donation made by former St. Helena Postmaster Peter Mennen and his foundation. The cemetery was pleased to be able to acquire a property to preserve the creek and riparian habitat but also to provide for future needs of potential burial land.

As directors of a nonprofit, local-serving essential organization, we have the fiduciary responsibility for the preservation of the property in perpetuity and providing the financial means to accomplish that end. Our directors take our obligations seriously and are concerned about the effects of our decisions and actions on the cemetery as well as the community at large.

The economic model of our business is unique in that the inventory of land determines the life span of the earnings, but the life of the cemetery and its maintenance continues beyond and must be endowed. It is important to generate sustaining income as well as endowment funds. There are no governmental subsidies with the exception of real property taxes.

During a review of our property and the maintenance with respect to the unused portion held for the future, it was determined we were expending labor and expense for weed abatement and other related expenses that could be mitigated by utilizing the property for agricultural purposes. This was confirmed when John Ferons (at the time was City of St. Helena Director of Public Works and Engineer) walked the property and advised the city did not regulate the planting of vineyard and no permits were required. As a result the available acreage north of Sulphur Creek was planted. Subsequently, several years later, the south acreage was also leased for vineyard. Since the property was in the city and zoned agriculture it was assumed it was the same as the previous project.

In retrospect, it would have been prudent to enlist the city in reviewing the newest planting prior to beginning the project. We acknowledge that and have been granted the necessary permits and paying a penalty. The city and other agencies are processing and will monitor the progress.

Since the property was acquired it has been posted with No Trespassing signs at the locked gate as well as the west end at Sulphur Springs Avenue. The signs have been removed by others from time to time and replaced. While we welcome visitors to the cemetery, we respectfully request the public honor our signs as they would any private property, be it backyards or open fields.

Here's an account of the situation by St. Helena Public Works Director Erica Ahmann Smithies:

To summarize, the St. Helena Cemetery’s lessee immediately responded to the City’s stop work notice and submitted a grading permit to rectify work that was completed up to the creek bank. The material pushed into Sulphur Creek triggered permits from the California Department of Fish and Wildlife as well as the San Francisco Regional Water Quality Control Board. The work to satisfy the City’s grading permit was completed, but the property owner/lessee have until the end of October 2020 to remove the material by hand in the creek to satisfy the regulatory permits. The vineyard planting itself does not require a permit per the City’s zoning requirements.

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