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Public Health
Unlike Sonoma County, Napa schools stay open during 'unhealthy' air from Butte County fire

A smoke-filled sky and unhealthy air quality did not result in school closures as of Wednesday by the Napa Valley Unified School District, in contrast to neighboring school districts in Sonoma County that decided to shut down due to the local effects of the Camp Fire in Butte County.

Last October, NVUSD closed all schools for two weeks while local wildfires raged in Napa County, producing air quality index (AQI) ratings that were red (unhealthy) purple (very unhealthy) or maroon (hazardous).

Although the AQI reached 161 in Napa on Tuesday, putting it in the red, the school district chose not to cancel classes. Instead, they advised schools to keep students and staff indoors during lunchtime, breaks and Physical Education.

In nearby Sonoma County, where the AQI reached 172 (red) in Santa Rosa on Tuesday, all but two school districts cancelled classes, according to Jamie Hansen, communications director for the Sonoma County Office of Education.

Sonoma schools were also closed on Friday, Hansen said, when the AQI hit 226 (purple). There was no school Monday in Sonoma or Napa because of Veterans Day.

Barbara Nemko, Napa County superintendent of schools, said the decision to keep Napa County public schools open came after she and the five district superintendents met with Dr. Karen Relucio, the county’s public health officer.

“Dr. Relucio pointed out that this year is different because the fires are not burning in our county and no one is being evacuated. She advised us to consider what the best decision would be causing the least amount of disruption for the majority of the people,” Nemko said in a letter to the Register.

“Because the quality of the air was registering unhealthy, (which means between 150 and 200 on the air-quality index), she recommended that schools remain open and teachers be advised to keep the children indoors for most of the day and forgo prolonged exercise outdoors. This would minimize disruption and follow the National Environmental Protection Agency guidelines for school response to air quality,” Nemko said.

NVUSD spokeswoman Elizabeth Emmett said Wednesday that “air quality is a big” concern for the district, but it is one of many factors that officials consider before deciding to cancel classes.

Closing schools impacts working families, too, according to Emmett. “When the air is bad, some kids are better off at home, and some are better off at school depending on their living situations,” she said.

However, cancelling classes wouldn’t impact NVUSD financially even though the state of California bases education funding to districts on average daily attendance of students.

“I spoke with the State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Torlakson, and he assured me that the schools would have gotten a waiver if they had closed, and will get a waiver for student absences during this period where parents may have kept children home from school because of asthma or other respiratory conditions,” Nemko said.

Last October, the district shut down for 10 school days after a disaster declaration was declared for Napa County. That declaration resulted in the state restoring any lost funding to NVUSD.

NVUSD sent out a message late Tuesday via ParentSquare, stating: “We are continuing to closely monitor the air quality for American Canyon, Napa and Yountville, and until the effects of the Camp Fire in Butte County subside, we will make daily announcements regarding school for the next day.”

The announcement noted that the district established guidelines last October for determining school closures. Those guidelines were “more stringent” than those of the EPA “because ours were built” during the wildfires disaster when the AQI ranged from red to purple, the message read.

It also stated: “When AQI is red, the EPA does not recommend that schools close.” The EPA, according to NVUSD, advises moving longer or more intense activities indoors or rescheduling them to another day or time.

On Monday, high school football playoff games scheduled for American Canyon and St. Helena were postponed and rescheduled for Saturday, Nov. 17, due to continued poor air quality across the Bay Area and surrounding counties, according to the CIF North Coast Section office.

Emmett said Wednesday that the 2017 district guidelines “didn’t give us much operational flexibility” after the October 2017 wildfires. “We’re going to be revisiting” those guidelines this year, she added.

In Sonoma County, education officials unveiled new guidelines on Tuesday that said school districts “may cancel classes” if the AQI is listed at 275 or above. That would fall in the purple category of very unhealthy.

Meanwhile, NVUSD is preparing for more “smoke events” now that huge wildfires are becoming more common in California, according to Emmett.

Based on feedback received this week at NVUSD, “some are happy we had school, and some are not happy about it,” Emmett said. “There’s going to be different points of view.”

Wednesdays’ AQI in Napa was 112 as of noontime, putting it in the orange, one step below red. “We’re happy to see that,” said Emmett.

Orange is considered unhealthy for “sensitive groups,” according to the EPA. That includes people with heart or lung disease, older adults, and children should reduce prolonged or heavy exertion, the agency advises when the AQI is orange.

Napa council grants historic, earthquake-damaged post office new life as a hotel

Napa’s historic Franklin Station post office — thrashed and wounded by an earthquake and once slated for the wrecking ball — will live twice.

A local developer got the go-ahead to recast the Depression-era landmark on downtown Second Street into a 163-room hotel, after the City Council granted a rezoning and a building agreement Tuesday night.

Over the next several years, James Keller aims to use the longtime post office as the seed of a hotel that will extend back and upward from a tan-brick edifice that has been a familiar sight to Napans since its opening in 1933.

Even in a time with increasing questions about downtown hotels’ effects on traffic and housing supplies, Keller’s mission to give the Franklin Station building a second act won wide acclaim from council members. They unanimously supported the project and praised its creator with saving the former post office from destruction.

“In my 12 years, this has been one of the most anticipated, important projects I’ve been asked to look at,” said Peter Mott, in his final meeting on the Napa council, as he credited the post office overhaul with a civic value beyond guest beds and tax revenue.

“I really thought we were going to lose this building. It’s one of those iconic buildings we all feel is important. This is one of those pieces of glue that make you say, this is a part of our history and we need to preserve it.”

Local advocates for increased housing also reached an agreement with Keller, as the Napa Housing Coalition convinced the developer to pursue steps toward creating housing elsewhere in the city, such as pouring funds into a new complex or developing a project that includes units offered at affordable rents. Coalition member Chuck Shinnamon called that step a way to address growing housing shortages in Napa, where tourist-based jobs are increasing even as the rental vacancy rate has dropped to just 1 percent.

The prospect of Napa Valley tourists spending their nights inside the landmark is a complete turnabout from the Franklin Station building’s bleak future after Aug. 24, 2014, when the South Napa quake ripped long cracks through its brickwork and shattered the six tall windows illuminating its lobby.

Faced with a repair bill estimated at $8 million, the U.S. Postal Service instead pondered razing the downtown post office for a half-million dollars. That possibility sparked an outcry among Napa residents and preservationists, who organized to call for the postal building’s preservation and repair. The federal government backed off its suggestion to tear down the landmark and put it up for sale in August 2015, nearly a year after the earthquake.

Another 19 months would pass before Keller purchased the post office building in 2017 — to launch a repair job other developers have described as one of Napa’s toughest in recent memory, due to the extent of quake damage and the need to preserve a landmark’s historic character. Franklin Station, the work of the longtime Napa architect William H. Corlett, was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1985 as an example of the Art Deco-themed public buildings sponsored by the federal government in the Depression years.

“Many people looked at it, including myself, and shied away. I thank Jim Keller for coming to the plate, because that’s the jewel of Napa,” the veteran Napa developer George Altamura told council members.

Keller’s proposal would conserve about 20 percent of the existing structure, from the north-facing front staircase to the depth of the post office lobby, according to plans filed with the city. An expansion would stretch to the south and upward, where city zoning allows a maximum height of 60 feet. Keller also could apply for a height exception to allow a rooftop lounge similar to the one included at the nearby Archer Hotel Napa, which opened on First Street a year ago.

The hotel’s footprint would take over the site of Zeller’s Ace Hardware on Randolph Street to the south. Keller earlier struck a deal to buy the Zeller’s parcel from its owner Dick Clark and help him find a new store location.

Parking space for hotel visitors would be provided by an automated garage to be built east on Second Street, atop a surface lot the city has sold to Keller. The new parking structure would hold about 228 vehicles, with 65 slots set aside for the public, and include 7,000 square feet of retail space.

The city’s development agreement with Keller calls for him to have a building design ready for city review in two years, and to line up financing and building permits by 2023, according to Planning Manager Erin Morris.

Franklin Station’s hotel conversion sailed through Napa’s approval process over the past month, winning the Planning Commission’s endorsement in October along with support from the Cultural Heritage Commission, which reviews any plans to modify historic buildings in the city.

Wine Industry
Are Napa Valley growers smart to rely so heavily on Cabernet Sauvignon?

A panel of grapegrowing pundits held court last week during the Napa Valley Grapegrowers’ Rootstock trade show on the wisdom of relying so heavily on Cabernet Sauvignon.

While conditions in their line of work can vary widely year to year, as in the case of a fraught 2017 growing season, the panel noted that for growers in Napa at least one thing remains a certainty, for better or worse: Cabernet is here to stay.

Panelist PJ Alviso became vice president of Central Coast wine grapegrowing for Duckhorn Vineyards last year. Before that, he worked with the company’s Napa Valley vineyards for 12 years.

Looking at Napa from a distance now, Alviso mused, “The bastion that Napa has is pretty admirable.”

That bastion is essentially the branding of the valley and its tie to high-quality Cabernet Sauvignon, a position Alviso calls “unassailable.”

“We can chafe at there potentially being too much Cabernet,” he said. “We can chafe at various parts of what that means … We see cool vineyards with great varietals that we like to drink being ripped out and put into Cabernet. That’s happening for a reason and it’s happening because Napa Cabernet, that brand is so strong.”

Economically speaking, compared with Cabernet Sauvignon elsewhere in California, the varietal is safely set apart from the wider marketplace when grown in Napa.

For the first time in history, Alviso said, the wine grape market in Napa has decoupled from the rest of the California grape market. A situation, he said, “where what happens in the rest of the state doesn’t really affect Napa economically at all … I don’t see that changing moving forward.”

But how does the security in Cabernet affect other varietals in the valley?

While the valley offers a wealth of vineyard sites well-suited to produce quality Cabernet Sauvignon, there are also areas with climes and soils less than ideal for growing the region’s most profitable grape. For instance, a Cabernet Sauvignon grown in clay soils in a cooler area like Carneros may potentially be subpar to Cabernet Sauvignon grown on better soil profiles in warmer sites like the Rutherford Bench or Oakville.

And yet, while a site may be better suited for growing grapes other than Cabernet, the economics for growers are clear.

A member of the audience queried the panel: What might be the incentive for growers in Napa to plant a varietal like Sauvignon Blanc over the more lucrative Cab?

“There is none,” Alviso said.

Noting that Duckhorn Sauvignon Blanc from Napa Valley sells for $28 a bottle, Alviso explained, “We could not move that price up.”

“Sauvignon Blanc is not so much tied to Napa,” he added. “A consumer’s going to go, ‘Cool. This one’s from Sonoma and it’s $18. Why don’t I drink that?’”

While the profitability gap between varietals like Sauvignon Blanc and Cabernet could be balanced in the past by higher yields of the white grape, as the average price for Napa Cabernet has moved past $5,000 a ton, that model is no more.

“Now, no matter the yield difference, you’re making more money with Cabernet,” Alviso said.

An abundance of quality wines in the market could work to balance out those made with grapes grown in areas with sub-par conditions, Alviso said. “But,” he added, “you’re going to grow better Cabernet in OK ground in Napa than you are anywhere else in California and maybe the New World and significant parts of the Old World.”

However, panelist Jon Ruel, CEO of Trefethen Family Vineyards, cautioned growers against considering Cabernet as the end-all grape here.

“It’s not a monolithic market here in Napa Valley,” Ruel said. “You shouldn’t put Cab in the ground and expect $8,000 a ton.”

And as far as other varietals, Ruel urged growers to consider their ability to mitigate risk in the event of a poor year for Cabernet.

“What we need is a cold vintage,” Ruel said. “If we had a cold vintage and we were challenged in ripening in parts of Napa Valley, we’d remember some of the differences in our terroir.”

Conditions at Trefethen generally allow the vineyards to produce twice as much of varietals like Chardonnay or Sauvignon Blanc over Cabernet. Still, he acknowledged, half as much Cabernet as the other varietals could reel in more profit in a good year.

But when faced with a colder growing year, where slower ripening forces Cabernet to stay on the vines late into the season, the boon of earlier-ripening grapes would become obvious.

In those situations, Ruel said, “you’ve got a higher crop out there that’s struggling to ripen and you’re wishing you had Chardonnay and you already picked it.”

Calistoga reaches deal to buy portion of Napa County Fairgrounds

CALISTOGA — The city of Calistoga has reached a tentative agreement with the county to buy a portion of the Napa County Fairgrounds.

The city intends to purchase 34.4 acres of the 70.6-acre property, according to a joint press release issued Wednesday morning by the city and the county, after the City Council met in closed session on Tuesday night.

The city will pay $225,000 per acre for a portion of the property including the Calistoga Speedway, Calistoga RV Park, Butler Pavilion, Tubbs Building, Cropp Building and the great lawn. Napa County will retain ownership of the remaining 36.3-acre portion of property which includes Mount St. Helena Golf Course and the Tucker Building.

“This is a mutually beneficial situation for Napa County and the City of Calistoga,” Napa County Board of Supervisors Chair Brad Wagenknecht said. “The Board of Supervisors recognizes the importance of the Fairgrounds to continue serving public uses for current and future generations. We are extremely confident this is a great decision for all Napa County residents, particularly for those living in Calistoga. All our community will continue to enjoy the benefits of this property.”

“While it was the city’s desire to acquire the entire 70-acre parcel, we recognize and appreciate this unique opportunity to secure this property for the benefit of Calistogans for decades to come,” said Calistoga Mayor Chris Canning. “We will always welcome our friends and neighbors from throughout Napa County and beyond to continue to enjoy events and activities hosted on this historic property. We can now move forward with discussions on how best to simultaneously preserve and utilize the grounds for the greatest benefit to Calistoga.”

The council will discuss the matter at its Tuesday, Nov. 20 meeting.

The fairgrounds, home to the official Napa County Fair, has been struggling since 2012, when the state cut funding to support fairgrounds in the midst of a long-running economic crunch. At the same time state funds were cut, the facility was dealing with aging infrastructure and the industry-wide drop in attendance at fairs, along with an archaic legal structure that made it difficult to borrow money or enter into long-term contracts with outside parties to run the facilities.

The county will deliver a draft Purchase & Sale Agreement (PSA) to the city within 14 days. The parties will then work on a mutually acceptable PSA that will be presented to the Board of Supervisors and City Council for final approval.

“After two years of long and sometimes arduous negotiations it is heartening the City and County were able to come together to find a solution, which will be to the mutual benefit of both parties but more importantly, to the benefit of all citizens of Napa County,” said Councilmember Jim Barnes. “This is a rare event, a win for all parties.”

“The Napa County Fair Association is excited about this new chapter in the 80-plus year legacy of the Napa County Fairgrounds and have restructured our organization for a continued role in the fairgrounds’ future,” said Fair Association Board chairwoman Karan Schlegel.

“This new chapter will include a new board, new vision, and opportunities that support the county fairgrounds as a public gathering place for future generations by fundraising for facility and program enhancements. Part of the Association’s plans are to preserve future state funding sources that already exist for the Network of California Fairgrounds by continuing to host county fair events on the grounds,” she said.