A Napa County Superior Court judge issued a ruling siding with neighbors who sued the city of St. Helena over changes at the Beringer Vineyards tank farm on Pratt Avenue.
Judge Victoria Wood’s ruling rejects the city’s argument that the replacement of eight large wine fermentation tanks with 130 smaller tanks was a “minor” alteration that qualified for a categorical exemption from the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA).
City Manager Mark Prestwich said the city still isn’t certain about the practical implications of the Nov. 7 ruling. Beringer neighbor Anthony Micheli, speaking on behalf of the group that filed the lawsuit, said the judgment nullifies the city’s approval of the project, which Beringer has already completed.
“This means they have to go back to square one,” Micheli said.
He said he’s willing to negotiate with Beringer toward an agreement that would allow the winery to keep using the new tanks temporarily in exchange for restarting the CEQA process, applying for a use permit amendment, and in the meantime abiding by the traffic, water and other limitations described in a 1974 environmental impact report for the winery.
“We’re not trying to put them out of business,” Micheli said. “All we want them to do is respect this city and (recognize) the mess that’s been created on Pratt due to them. ... The impact they’ve caused on this city is not right. We’re just asking them to be a good neighbor.”
Treasury Wine Estates, Beringer’s parent company, plans to appeal.
“Treasury Wine Estates (TWE) received all necessary approvals from the city of St. Helena for modifications to its luxury wine production facilities at its Beringer winery prior to the project commencing,” said Debra Dommen, vice president for government and industry affairs for Treasury Wine Estates.
“TWE respectfully disagrees with the administrative court’s ruling that the St. Helena City Council did not apply the proper standard of review to its permits. TWE will appeal the court’s decision against the City. TWE remains committed to ongoing cooperation and partnership with the community and to producing celebrated luxury wines.”
The St. Helena Planning Commission approved the design review for the project in April 2017. Micheli appealed to the City Council, which upheld the ruling in June 2017. Micheli and a group of residents, calling themselves Citizens for Responsible Winery Growth in St. Helena, subsequently filed the lawsuit.
During public hearings, city staff and attorneys said Beringer’s plans could be covered by a CEQA exemption and design review, but neighbors pushed for a use permit amendment and a more thorough analysis of the project’s effects on traffic, noise and other impacts.
Although the changes would slightly decrease the facility’s overall wine production, neighbors argued that the smaller tanks would result in greater impact. Wood’s ruling made a similar point.
“The project’s plan to change the operation to produce multiple brands’ wines (up to 130 with the proposed tanks), each with individual fermentation, bottling, labeling and packaging needs, would axiomatically expand beyond a negligible degree the existing use of producing one brand’s wine from only eight tanks,” Wood wrote.
According to the ruling, the city lacked adequate evidence to determine that the project would not have a significant cumulative impact on traffic. The ruling “requires that the cumulative impacts question be answered through proper initial study assessment and consideration of conditional mitigation measures, if any,” Wood wrote.
On Nov. 1, Wood issued a tentative ruling siding with the city, and both sides made oral arguments at a hearing the next day. The final ruling, which came to the opposite conclusion, was issued on Nov. 7.
Prestwich said the council will discuss the ruling in closed session, and he hasn’t received any council direction yet on whether to appeal.
As the applicant, Treasury Wine Estates is responsible for paying the city’s legal expenses related to the case.
Desiree Borden thought she had time to pack her things. But a friend called to say the Camp Fire in Paradise was barreling toward her home in Paradise and would be at her doorstep in a matter of minutes. Borden and her husband grabbed their toddler, their dogs and raced out with the sad resignation that their home would burn to the ground.
A few hours later, Borden got a Facebook message from someone she didn’t know: “I know this is random,” it read. “Is your house at . . . Chloe Court in paradise?”
Borden replied: “Yes. Is it gone. Are you ok?”
Then the response came: “We got trapped there. It saved our life.”
Borden was momentarily confused.
The sender, nurse Crissy Foster, explained: “Our ambulance caught fire and we used your garage to keep our patients until we could get to safety. . . . Your garage is a safe haven!”
Borden replied: “I have chills all over my body! I am so happy my home saved you!”
It turned out that in an act of desperation, a paramedic had broken into Borden’s home that day, Nov. 8, through a doggie door. The ambulance crew then loaded three patients into the garage. They were joined by others, and ultimately 13 people took refuge from the fire.
Borden’s home was the only one in sight that miraculously had not caught fire, and the medical staff and patients—including a woman who had just had a C-Section—huddled in Borden’s garage as fire “rained down” around them, said Tamara Ferguson, one of the nurses in the group.
“It was unfathomable how fast the fire was moving, there was no way out,” Ferguson said. “The safest thing to do was wait right there.”
The medical staff had escaped with some patients from Feather River Hospital in Paradise that morning in two ambulances with little time to spare. The ambulances were on a narrow road heading away from the fire, looking for a safe route out of town.
Just when they thought the situation couldn’t get worse, it did.
They were about a mile from the hospital at 9:15 a.m. when the ambulance in front of Ferguson broke down from the thick smoke, then started to melt.
“We were behind them. There was nowhere we could go,” Ferguson said. “We turned at the closest cul-de-sac and we found the one house that was not on fire. We had to break into it.”
One of them, Ferguson didn’t know who, crawled into the doggie door, then opened the garage door from the inside.
They quickly unloaded the three patients and settled them in the garage.
Ferguson said she was sure she was going to die.
“I made phone calls to my family and said goodbye,” she said.
But Paradise Fire Chief David Hawks found them and swiftly gave everyone orders, likely saving their lives. Everyone did as he said. Some people climbed onto the roof with hoses, others cleared pine needles from gutters.
“There was fire all around us, the house next door to us was on fire,” Ferguson said. “He told us what to do. He was like, ‘You, go get brush. You, spray down the roof.’ We all worked together.”
The group of 13 people, including three patients, nurses and a pediatrician, hunkered down in the garage for two hours, waiting for the fast-moving flames to pass. Medical staff and fire fighters continued to clear brush and try to keep the house safe. Finally, a sheriff’s van pulled up and the whole group piled in, heading to a different hospital several miles away. Everyone was fine.
It turned out that all the patients and staff had safely evacuated from Feather River Hospital that morning, but the building was badly burned.
Once the nurses returned to safety, Foster sent the Facebook message to Borden. She found her by searching “Borden” on Facebook, and took a guess she had the correct one based on the name on the mailbox.
Borden said she was in “utter shock” when she got the message.
“I was not just in shock that our house made it, but that those people were able to be safe there,” she said.
Just earlier that day, she had driven out of Paradise watching things burn all around her.
“We drove away thinking the house is gone,” she said. “Things were on fire right next to us. Some things got spared and others didn’t, there’s no rhyme or reason to it. It’s so scary.”
As for Ferguson, her house in the nearby town of Chico is fine. But she has 14 relatives and close friends staying with her because their homes were claimed by the flames. She wrote her dramatic story about the garage incident in a Facebook post the day after it happened, saying “I will forever be changed by yesterday as so many thousands of others are, but not by what was physically lost, but the reminder that life changes quickly.”
Borden, also, reflected on the situation emphasizing that more than 80 people are confirmed dead and at least 1,200 more are missing. She wants to let people know that amid the horrors, there were also stories of hope—like her house becoming a safe haven for people in dire need.
“I saw our whole town burning down,” Borden said “I needed to share something positive.”
With smoke from California wildfires having blanketed the valley for more than a week, Napa visitors found themselves looking to buy breathing masks as well as wine.
But whether or not that smoke has impacted tourism remains to be seen, said visitor experts.
“We won’t have November (hotel occupancy) reports until late next month, but generally while the Napa Valley Welcome Center received a few calls from individuals pertaining to the fires in Butte County, we have not been informed of any cancellations,” said Lisa Poppen, vice president marketing and communications at Visit Napa Valley.
“We’re hearing it; we know it’s a discussion point for sure,” said Angie Pappas of Visit California. “We’re hoping with things improving with some rain, we’ll be in better shape next week.”
“It’s been hard with the fires so active to know” what the final impact will be, but “we’re tracking (lodging) occupancy levels monthly and so I’m hoping we’ll have a better sense in the next few weeks,” said Pappas.
In California, “I think people are no stranger” to smoke but this period of smoke and haze was sustained, she said. “You could see it and smell it and it blanketed the Bay Area.”
Due to the air quality, a number of Napa County events were cancelled in November, including the Nov. 11 Napa Valley Harvest half marathon, 5K and 10K race and various football playoff games.
Speaking anecdotally, the news coverage of the air quality and smoke certainly went global, Pappas said.
“I talked to someone in our Italy office and she saw the news of the air quality,” said Pappas.
“I don’t have any confirmed visitation numbers, but common sense would suggest visitors would avoid Napa and California,” said Mike Gallagher, co-founder and co-chair of CityPASS, a ticket package company.
“I hope the prediction of rain for this week will clean the air,” said Gallagher. “Once the coast is clear, the tourists will come back. They know how wonderful the Napa Valley is at this time of year.”
“The Camp Fire, located in Butte County, which is two and a half hours, or 135 miles, northeast of Napa Valley, is now 70 percent contained,” said a statement this past week from Visit Napa Valley. While smoke was visible in Napa County and air quality advisories were issued, “All hotels, wineries, restaurants and attractions in the Napa Valley are welcoming visitors.”
“Air quality across the state is improving,” said Visit California.
“California is a large state, and wildfires in one location typically have no impact outside a limited area,” said the agency. “California’s gateway airports remain open, and flights across the state are operating normally.”
In a news release from this past August, Visit California found that smoke from summer wildfires did lead to an overall decline in visitor travel statewide. According to the tourism agency, 11 percent of travelers said wildfires prompted them to cancel trips to California, representing a loss of $20 million to the state’s tourism economy in July.
The statewide agency also suggested that November through April, referred to as Cabernet Season, “is one of the best times to visit the Napa Valley.”
“It’s a time when the pace slows, lodging rates are a bit lower, and securing a coveted reservation at one of Napa Valley’s restaurants is a bit easier,” said the agency.
ANGWIN — Beginning in January, Pacific Union College plans to begin work on an approximately 3-mile shaded fuel break. It is designed to protect the college and Angwin from a wildfire that comes from the east.
With financial support from residents and alumni, the college plans to construct a shaded fuel break on a prominent ridge between Pope Valley and Angwin, running from Howell Mountain Road to the Las Posadas State Forest.
Angwin Volunteer Fire Department Chief J.R. Rogers said, “A shaded fuel break is a great fire prevention measure that reduces fuel levels in key locations and helps to slow a fire’s rate of spread, giving us a defensible location so we can ultimately suppress the forward momentum of a fire.”
A public meeting to address questions and concerns will be at 11 a.m., Sunday, Dec. 2 in the Fireside Room at the Pacific Union College Church, 10 Angwin Ave., adjacent to the college. This meeting will be followed at noon by a field tour of the shaded fuel break, starting from Helmer & Sons Construction at 910 Howell Mountain Road.
In 2014, the college began working with the Land Trust of Napa County and Cal Fire to conserve more than 800 acres of forested land in a conservation easement. Now known as the PUC Demonstration and Experimental Forest, it is used for student activities and scientific research projects, as well as recreation for both college and residents.
“The forest is part of our rich heritage here on Howell Mountain. It provides welcome opportunities for both education and recreation in a pristine forested setting,” said PUC president Dr. Robert Cushman.
PUC has developed a Cal Fire-approved Forest Stewardship Plan, which outlines management goals and objectives (available at www.pucforest.com). This plan includes fire reduction work, of which the shaded fuel break is only the initial phase.
Margo Kennedy, the co-chairwoman of Angwin Fire Safe Council, said, “Our council is in full support of the PUC forest shaded fuel break. This shaded fuel break is an essential and immediately important endeavor to help protect the community of Angwin.”
If you wish to support this project, visit http://puc.fund/firemitigation. All donations are tax deductible.
For more information, contact PUC Forest Management at firstname.lastname@example.org or (707) 965-7635.