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Coquerel's Calistoga Tempranillo and Truchard's Carneros are Napa Valley examples of the iconic Spanish grape. 

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Napa County approves what could be its first commercial solar farm

A bid to build Napa County’s first solar commercial farm won approval from the Napa County Planning Commission, with critics saying they will appeal the outcome to the Board of Supervisors.

Renewable Properties LLC wants to install 12,000 solar panels on 18 acres at 2180 American Canyon Road along Interstate 80. The 3-megawatt project would sell enough power for 1,000 homes to Marin Clean Energy, which provides electricity in Napa County.

The Planning Commission on Nov. 28 deadlocked 2-2 over the proposal. Commissioner Jeri Hansen was present on Wednesday to cast the tie-breaking vote to grant approval.

Concerns have centered on county regulations that allow electric generating plants in all zoning districts, but don’t specifically address commercial solar farms.

“I understand the concerns about a project like this opening the floodgates and all of a sudden renewable energy projects are proliferating through the county and we can’t do anything to control it,” Hansen said.

But, she said, she respectfully disagrees with this slippery slope argument. The Planning Commission treats each proposal individually, and she doesn’t see a dangerous precedent being set.

Laura Tinthoff, Eileen Pereira and several other residents asked the county to craft commercial solar regulations before considering the American Canyon project.

Hansen said she thinks the American Canyon project is a “poster child” for the type of project any future commercial solar regulations would allow. She didn’t want the county to hold it up out of an overabundance of caution.

“Right now in Napa County, these types of projects are allowed in this zone,” Hansen said. “For us to make policy on the fly at a Planning Commission meeting is not appropriate. That is something that happens at the Board of Supervisors level.”

Aaron Halimi of Renewable Properties said after the meeting he would like to begin construction of the commercial solar farm in January. But Tinthoff and Pereira said an appeal to the Board of Supervisors to try to overturn the commission’s approval is forthcoming.

Before the Planning Commission hearing, Pereira questioned whether Hansen should be allowed to cast a tie-breaking vote. She said Hansen has a conflict of interest, given Hansen is CEO of Sustainable Napa County and the group promoted bringing Marin Clean Energy to the county.

County officials disagreed that Hansen had a conflict.

The Planning Commission agreed with American Canyon solar project critics that the county needs policies for commercial solar farms. It will ask the Board of Supervisors to embark on a renewable energy ordinance.

“I’d like to thank you and offer our support from the public,” Tinthoff told commissioners.

Several residents addressed the Board of Supervisors on Tuesday on the topic of a possible renewable energy ordinance, prior to Wednesday’s Planning Commission hearing. Eve Kahn of Get A Grip on Growth asked supervisors to get a grip on solar.

Supervisors didn’t respond, as they usually don’t during the public comments section of their meeting. Whether the Board will agree that a renewable energy ordinance is needed and where it fits in with other county priorities remains to be seen.

Neighboring Solano County began dealing with commercial solar proposals in 2013, with a proposal to build a solar farm near Travis Air Force Base and another on the Delta agricultural area of Ryer Island.

In 2015, Solano County prohibited commercial solar in agricultural areas and allowed it in commercial and industrial areas with a permit. An exception was allowing a SolAgra Ryer Island research facility to see if crops can be grown under solar panels.

In 2013, neighboring Sonoma County passed commercial solar rules. The county doesn’t allow commercial solar farms on designated important farmlands. It allows them on non-prime farm areas with a rezone to a renewable energy district. It requires a decommissioning plan.

Renewable Properties also proposed to build a commercial solar farm in the Coombsville area near the city of Napa. That idea provoked opposition from neighbors.

Halimi said the application for the Coombsville project is being withdrawn. Renewable Properties intends to seek an alternative site for another Napa County commercial solar project.

Napa County in 2010 approved a proposal for a 6.7- megawatt commercial solar farm on the closed American Canyon landfill owned by the Napa-Vallejo Waste Management Authority. That facility was never built.

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Change to state law may be needed for affordable housing at Napa Pipe site

Facing a roadblock to joining forces with Napa County to create affordable housing, the city may look east for a solution – toward Sacramento.

Napa city officials will consider seeking special state legislation to ease the creation of below-market-rate rental homes at Napa Pipe, the mixed-use development that would transform 154 acres of a dormant pipe manufacturing plant off Kaiser Road with up to 945 dwellings, as well as retail space, parks, a hotel and a Costco store.

If accepted by the California Legislature, a rule change would allow Napa County to receive credit for permits on affordable housing built within city limits or on city-annexed land and thus meet its state-required quota of lower-cost housing, city Planning Manager Erin Morris told the Napa City Council on Tuesday.

Under the Regional Housing Need Allocation program, California communities must plan for a set number of below-market-rate homes in eight-year cycles. For the 2015-23 period, Napa County and its five cities are required to plan for 1,482 dwellings, including 180 in the unincorporated county.

Napa Pipe is expected to host 140 of those affordable homes: 70 units for families making less than half the local median income, and the rest for households that earn less than 80 percent of the median. Another 50 dwellings would be reserved for households with “moderate” incomes no more than 20 percent above median level.

However, the annexation of unincorporated Napa Pipe lands into the city of Napa would throw a snag into the plan, according to Morris. While the county is relying on the project’s size to fulfill most of its affordable housing requirement, state law currently blocks the county from claiming credit for housing permits issued within the city, she told council members. (A pact with the county transferred most of the Napa Pipe tract into the city two years ago, with the remaining 43 acres to follow by the end of 2022.)

Should city and county leaders head to the Capitol to seek a remedy from state lawmakers, Mayor Jill Techel will offer to represent the city in that effort. “I’ve been there, and I’d be willing to go there again,” said Techel, a Napa council member for two decades.

A promised infusion of home construction amid historically high sale prices and rents is one of two highly anticipated features of Napa Pipe, along with a Costco membership store that executives have said may open in the spring of 2021 if enough of the project’s housing is complete by then.

The development also is to include 150 units of senior housing, a 150-room hotel, 90,000 square feet of office space and 40,000 square feet of other retail areas, along with commercial and light industrial construction and 34 acres of parkland.

Napa Valley's historic Oakville Grocery sold to vintner Jean-Charles Boisset

Napa Valley’s historic Oakville Grocery has been sold.

Jean-Charles Boisset has added the grocery store to his Boisset Collection, purchasing it from the Rudd family, which has owned it for the past 11 years. The sale will close in early 2019. The purchase price was not disclosed.

The sale includes the Oakville store and property, the Healdsburg location and the brand from the Rudd family, who are proprietors of Rudd Estate and PRESS Restaurant. The family completed significant restoration of the Oakville property, grocery store, and adjacent Victorian house during its ownership. It joins Boisset’s family-owned portfolio of historical wineries and gourmet retail destinations.

“Oakville Grocery has been a staple of Napa Valley since 1881,” said Samantha Rudd. “My family purchased it in 2007 in order to revive the illustrious historical store that has meant so much to this community. My father’s vision was to restore it to its rightful place in California wine country, and to ensure that its legacy remained for the local and tourist community for decades to come. Our family invested significantly in the site and the store, including a restoration to the historic Victorian house in Oakville, to achieve his vision. I am proud of my father’s stewardship.”

Samantha’s father, Leslie Gerald Rudd, passed away on May 3, 2018 in New York City at age 76 after a battle with esophageal cancer. He was a vintner, entrepreneur, businessman and philanthropist, who founded The Rudd Group.

One of his friends, venture capitalist and former tech executive, Joe Schoendorf, said Rudd rescued the Oakville Grocery from bankruptcy in 2007 — not because of its investment potential, but because he saw it as “an important institution” to preserve for the Napa Valley and its visitors.

Samantha Rudd said the sale allows her to focus on Rudd Estate and PRESS Restaurant “knowing that Oakville Grocery is in good hands.”

For many years, Rudd owned the grocery chain Dean & DeLuca, which has a store in St. Helena. He sold the chain to a Thai development company in 2014.

Boisset, proprietor of Boisset Collection, said, “I have always adored the Oakville Grocery for what it represents for Napa Valley, for California and for America. I have fond memories of visiting from France with my parents and sister when I was 11 years old. It is a landmark and iconic destination at the crossroads of history in Napa that has been the community gathering place, mercantile, farm stand, and grocery for neighbors and visitors alike for well over a century.

“The Rudd family have been remarkable stewards, believing in its past and future, and infusing the property with the passion, care and respect it deserves. We are exceptionally honored to be entrusted to carry forward this timeless property and continue their dreams.”

Boisset said he plans to offer fresh and local products from farmers, artisans and purveyors in Napa and Sonoma, anchoring Oakville Grocery with a sense of history and place in the foundation of local, sustainable, organic, and healthy food.

Oakville Grocery joins Boisset Collection’s historical wineries and destinations in California and France, including Buena Vista Winery, founded in 1857 as the first premium winery in California. Boisset’s portfolio is anchored in history, heritage and terroir in Napa, Sonoma, Burgundy, Jura, Beaujolais, the Rhône Valley and the South of France.

Submitted photo 

Leslie Rudd bought the Oakville Grocery chain, saving the Oakville store from bankruptcy in 2007. Now it has been sold to Jean-Charles Boisset, who is adding it to his Boisset Collection of wineries and gourmet retail locations.

Rural Living
As wildfires drive insurance premiums up, will homeowners be able to keep up?

At first, Lucy Reynolds was unnerved by the non-renewal notice from the insurance company two years ago.

Mortgaged homes must have coverage so Reynolds and her husband needed to find a replacement, quick. She was turned down by her neighbor’s carrier and an insurance agent spent a week looking for ways to cover their ranch-style home in the foothills of El Dorado County.

They landed with the Hartford Insurance Company, only their premium was 17 percent higher after receiving a discount through AARP.

“When we bought the house we had no trouble getting insurance,” Reynolds said. “I’ve heard anecdotal stories of people having to pay twice as much as they had before so I felt fortunate that we only had a (17 percent) increase.”

More and more, insurance companies are casting a wary eye on Californians who live in wildfire-prone areas, choosing not to renew policies or drop some homeowners’ coverage altogether.

Researchers have found that as wildfires become less predictable and more potent, the industry that relies on spreading out risk is in retreat in some parts of California. Some homeowners now buy more expensive insurance products that offer fewer protections and less coverage in case of a catastrophe.

Consumer advocates and industry groups say the state’s property insurance market is not yet in a crisis, but the recent spate of intense wildfires will portend lasting change. The Camp Fire that burned through the town of Paradise was only the latest in a string of blazes experts say are growing larger, moving faster and causing more destruction than fires in previous years.

The buildup of foothill communities in the last two decades means many now live in harm’s way — and that risk will come with a price.

“I think consumers are going to have to get used to paying more for their homeowners’ insurance,” said Amy Bach, executive director of the insurance advocacy group United Policyholders.

“The days of your annual premium being under $1,000 are coming to an end here in California. The question is how much more are they (premiums) going to jump.”

Looming crisis?

Wildfires are already reshaping the homeowners’ insurance market. Some insurance sellers have already noticed the difference. A half-dozen brokers and agents interviewed by The Bee said finding coverage has become more challenging in the last five years.

“All these major companies started pulling out quietly. People got non-renewals; people got flat-out canceled. There are companies that are still doing that today,” said Joyce Howard, a broker in Auburn who specialized in high-risk properties until she sold her book of clients in November.

If a homeowner is denied coverage by an insurer three times, they can buy fire insurance through the FAIR Plan — the state’s insurer of last resort. Since 2011, the organization has seen enrollment fall by 5 percent but policyholders in counties that border wildlands now account for a greater share than before.

Homeowners in certain counties have flocked to the state’s insurer of last resort for fire coverage. Consumer advocates say the shift is troubling since those policies offer less protection than mainstream insurers.

In a state-funded study, researchers found that between 2007 and 2015, insurers renewed fewer policies in ZIP codes in and around the city of San Bernardino and the Sierra foothills of Placer, Nevada and El Dorado counties.

While insurers pulled back from the places with a higher concentration of risky properties, the FAIR Plan saw a distinct increase in market share, according to the study published by the RAND Corporation in September. FAIR Plan officials said the increase does not pose a challenge and the organization can adjust.

“The question is how fast are premiums changing. We’ve found that between 2007 and 2014 the premiums in the high-risk areas that we identified rose by about 12 percent. The premiums in the low-risk areas actually fell by the same amount,” said Lloyd Dixon, a RAND economist and co-author of the study.

“You have this situation where overall in the low-risk areas of the state premiums are actually trending downward but you’re seeing in those high-risk ZIP codes where premiums are actually decreasing.”

Still, Lloyd said companies argue that even though the cost of homeowners’ insurance has climbed in hazardous areas, the price many pay still does not reflect the full risk because of state regulations.

The state limits rate increases to 6.9 percent, and anything over that can be challenged. Losses paid out from wildfires and other calamities are factored into a 20-year average. As larger and larger claims are paid from the onslaught of fires, experts say premiums will inevitably rise.

That could have some bearing on the state’s real estate market if consumers find it too difficult to obtain affordable coverage when buying or selling a house. But Bach and others do not foresee an exodus from those places where wildland blends into small cities.

Bach said California regulators and industry insiders are clinging to a gambling analogy.

“Insurers are (like) gamblers. If they get spooked, they will fold their hand and leave,” Bach said. “And so even just calling something a crisis can cause a crisis because perception, when you’re a gambler, can be powerful.”


Insurance regulators seized control this month of Merced Property & Casualty Co. after the firm said it could not pay its potential $64 million in liabilities stemming from the Camp Fire. The California Department of Insurance said it will turn the company over to an industry-backed guarantee fund that will handle claims.

Such actions are rare, and industry groups say it’s another reason to be leery of the shift to alternative forms of insurance. The so-called ‘non-admitted market’ is not regulated by the state and there is no guarantee fund if a company collapses.

“That’s one of the reasons we should see it as a concerning development. There are some downsides for that move. That’s why the (regulated) market is most secure,” said Rex Frasier, president of the Personal Insurance Federation of California.

The changes have stirred some anxiety in homeowners like Reynolds who expects her policy with the Hartford to be renewed in January. The 61-year-old former fire inspector watched from a distance as the King Fire burned in Pollock Pines and then the Tubbs, Carr and Camp fires — the most destructive blaze in state history.

Reynolds knows their home — surrounded by mostly woods and brush — could be next.

So every year, she and her husband try to clear some of the 10 1/2 acres they own. They have an RV in storage off-site so they have someplace to live in case of a fire. “Go-bags” are packed all summer for themselves and their dogs. Copies of important documents are stored online.

“You have to start thinking a different way,” she said. “I’m starting to think of all of that stuff as self-insurance.”

But the actual insurance business is less predictable and consumers often do not have a say. Their insurance premium cost $2,128 this year — up 15 percent from when they first bought with the Hartford. After the barrage of wildfires this year, Reynolds knows another rate hike is in store.

“I just don’t know what the end of the story is here,” Reynolds said. “Insurance companies aren’t going to want to insure us after these catastrophic fires. Where does that leave all of us?”