This is the second time in as many months the Star’s Editorial Board has advocated for a development project in the county, well outside of city limits, and beyond the bounds of the city's General Plan where supervisors are the deciders, not members of the St. Helena City Council. The first was an endorsement of the “Trail Through the Vines” (conversion of Ehlers Lane) and the current one is the Editorial Board’s support of a hotel and housing projects (conversion of a winery site on Lodi Lane) … I have little doubt there is some tie between the two or their advocates, maybe family ties.
I write this letter only to caution St. Helena’s City Council not to fall into any traps “endorsing” these schemes, so I am laying out the law (policy) that guides Land Use in Napa County’s Agricultural Preserve. I think it unwise if our council were to endorse either project as it pertains to these unlawful proposals, lest they get caught up in something unsavory themselves. Former Mayor Alan Galbraith cautioned against fraudsters with his reference to the sleazy scheme of Craig and Kathryn Hall, taken to the county as a renovated residential project with designs/plans labeled “hotel.”
As most in the area are aware, these locations are in our Agricultural Preserve which bars the schemes advanced. As the county’s General Plan AG/LU - 12 policy states: “No new non-agricultural use or development of a parcel located in an agricultural area shall be permitted unless it is needed for the agricultural use of this parcel.” So why is the Star's Editorial Board advocating for both the change in use of Ehlers Lane from a farm-to-market lane to a tourist-oriented bicycle trail, of all things? Ehlers Lane serves 15 farming operations since 1872, and doesn’t even have a history of bicycle use by area residents and none by out-of-area cyclists save a few groups that trespassed through private properties 20 years ago.
As to the bicycle trail, the stretch between Napa and Yountville was a legal use of Caltrans property (acquired prior to creation of the Ag Preserve in 1968) in a heavily used transportation corridor. Such is not the case either on Ehlers Lane or through an Ag Preserve parcel (vineyards) where owners are not permitted to give easements to the county for the Bicycle Coalition projects that are illegal.
The latest scofflaw position of the Editorial Board, following in the same neighborhood, is a hotel and residential development by out-of-towners (hyped as people we should all know), essentially a “conversion” of a winery site to a hotel with employee housing. Is this to set a precedent so that wineries everywhere, some of the several hundred reported by Stu Smith as “unprofitable” producing 5,000 gallons or less, can follow suit? Or so theme park-ish activities like those of The Prisoner (since removed by the county) can follow suit? Like a Disney scheme? Actually, the bike trail through the vines was not a Chuck McMinn “sudden realization,” but was originally a part of a Disney theme park tour and transportation scheme also touted by the previous owners of “The Wine Train” in their past mission of taking the train to Calistoga to move an additional 5.5 million tourists through the valley each year where the Battuello Vineyards were essential as a transportation hub and are served by Ehlers Lane.
I find it embarrassing to live in a town taken over by corruption advocates or its town paper advocating corrupt practices, just to give the Board of Supervisors some support for their pattern of law-breaking in decisions made to date on a number of matters, the current one being the Ehlers Lane “Trail Through the Vines” advanced by Chuck McMinn. This was roughly the idea that Walt Disney Corp. had for the area, and that fell through (a “stealth scheme”), then the Wine Train changed ownership and is content to stay where it is. The land between St. Helena and Calistoga is private property, all Ag Preserve, or in one case, land that was illegally obtained by an exempt entity.
The foregoing schemes are barred by the voters of this county through 2058, under Measure P, which extended Measure J, passed in 1990 to preserve the county’s vital and fertile farmland and its watersheds. Essentially, the voters determine any exceptions, not the Board of Supervisors. The county ordinances (aka Zoning Codes, Titles) are all consistent in barring non-agricultural commercial developments and not permitting non-agricultural activities in the Agricultural Preserve. Our Board of Supervisors is collectively so out of touch with reality that they may need to be ousted. I suggest the same for the Editorial Board of “The St. Helena Star” that consistently misleads its readers re: development schemes in the county.
It may be in the best interests of our local press to form a board that includes people with integrity and a broad knowledge of local laws. Without the clout of Disney, it is no longer “magic” and “do anything you want to do” or “who cares about the laws of a tiny county that otherwise is a backwater?” A whole lot of residents care and those with eyes that light up with the word “development" should plan on relocating to growth communities like Dublin (East Bay), Bakersfield and Newark, California.
Lois Ann Battuello
Editor’s Note: The Star’s editorial board did NOT endorse either the Napa Valley Vine Trail through Ehlers Lane or the proposed hotel at Highway 29 and Lodi Lane.