A computerized crystal ball peers into the Bay Area's future and shows brown suburbs relentlessly gobbling up green farmland - but not in Napa County's agricultural preserve.
The agricultural preserve reaches its 50th anniversary this year. Passed by the Board of Supervisors in 1968 and later strengthened by voters, the preserve is supposed to act as a kind of legislative, growth-repelling force field.
If the Environmental Protection Agency’s Integrated Climate and Land Use Scenarios map is accurate, the preserve will continue protecting Wine Country farmland for another 50 years.
County Planning, Building and Environmental Services Director David Morrison on a recent day looked at his computer as EPA growth scenarios unfolded through 2070. He zoomed in on the light-green tinge of the Napa Valley floor.
“I’m not seeing a whole lot of difference,” Morrison said as future decades zoomed by.
But the rest of the Bay Area sees a huge difference. If the EPA growth scenarios are correct, Napa Valley will be a regional oasis of agriculture 50 years from now.
“We’re going to get squeezed,” Morrison said. “Solano is going be fairly developed, Sonoma’s going to be fairly developed. Vallejo is like Oakland-level density.”
Morrison can envision an alternative future for Napa County. Perhaps land grows far more valuable for home building than grape growing, political resolve to protect agriculture wanes and the agricultural preserve is swallowed by development.
“That’s the choice,” Morrison said. “We either fight really hard to keep what we have in terms of agriculture or we’re absorbed into the Bay Area metropolitan region.”
Ag preserve, totalitarianism and 'slip-shod semi-city'
That’s the same choice the county faced at the birth of the agricultural preserve in 1968. At that time, the idea of zoning 23,000 or so acres on the Napa Valley floor as protected agriculture proved controversial.
“Socialism” and “totalitarianism,” cried some landowners. This was before Napa County’s future as a prosperous Wine Country was assured, when some thought Napa Valley might go the way of Santa Clara Valley and urbanize.
After all, a Napa city planner in 1966 had warned the Rotary Club that the city of Napa would grow tenfold to 250,000 residents within 40 years. Every population prediction showed farmland would be “swallowed up with road tops, roofs tops, house tops, store tops and other kinds of hard tops,” he said.
“There is still time to protect the Napa River from becoming another city sink and the valley another sleazy, slovenly, slip-shod semi-city smeared with the filth of polluted air and marginal accommodations, if we can familiarize with the steps to prevent it,” Planner Richard Oliver said.
He didn’t suggest defying the growth tiger, but rather learning to live with it. Napa Valley would handle the inevitable urbanization in orderly fashion so the resulting cityscape stretching up and down Napa Valley would be livable.
Some - including county Assessor George Abate and County Administrator Albert Haberger - saw another way. They wanted an agricultural preserve where legal parcels could be subdivided only within strict limits - the 1968 version set this minimum at 20 acres and the county in 1979 raised it to 40 acres.
Winemakers such as Jack Davies and Louis Martini backed the notion of an agricultural preserve.
“Do the citizens of Napa Valley really believe the future of our land is best served by destroying landmarks and replacing them with subdivisions, bleak shopping centers and highway strip development?” Martini wrote to the county Planning Commission in 1968.
On April 9, 1968, the Napa County Board of Supervisors agreed by a 4-0 vote to create the agricultural preserve, then moved on to tackle the details. The map for the preserve became official in November 1968.
“This is a bold forward step for Napa County and perhaps unprecedented in the continental United States, but I believe it is the expression of the will of the people,” Supervisor Jack Ferguson said.
Shortly thereafter, a state official announced the likely cancellation of plans to build a freeway stretching up the Napa Valley.
For years, the existence of the agricultural preserve rested on the Board of Supervisors. If three members of the five-member Board so decided, this voting bloc could jettison the preserve.
But Measure J in 1990 and its successor, Measure P in 2008, locked in the general plan agricultural designations unless changed by a vote of the people. Measure P lasts to 2058.
The city of Napa 50 years after the agricultural preserve's establishment hasn’t grown to have 250,000 residents as predicted in 1966, not even close. It has about 80,000 residents and the entire county has about 141,000.
Meanwhile, the agricultural preserve has grown from about 23,000 acres to 31,609 acres.
Wine Country has prospered since 1968 and the once-controversial agricultural preserve is now universally beloved. County Board of Supervisors Chair Brad Wagenknecht recently mentioned the preserve when describing a nation divided into red states and blue states lacking a common vision.
“In Napa, we have one,” Wagenknecht said. “It’s our ag preserve.”
No slam dunk?
So the agricultural preserve appears to be here to stay, a seeming mom-and-apple-pie Napa County institution. But can it keep the Napa Valley floor green for another 50 years, as the EPA computer simulation suggests?
If people view the county’s farming future as a slam dunk, it won’t happen, said Cio Perez of the Napa County Farm Bureau.
He worries about pressures coming from the tourism industry and wineries wanting more events that he thinks might be better served in a city setting. He doesn’t want to see winery hospitality overshadow the growing of plants in soil.
“It’s the concern of Farm Bureau that we’re losing the true intent of the ag preserve,” Perez said.
Imagine, then, a darker vision of an agricultural preserve that 50 years from now exists more for food, music and touristy fun than for grape-growing, a kind of semi-rural theme park for the good life.
Still, Perez said a majority of the community supports an agricultural preserve that emphasizes crops. Citizens must voice their views and stay engaged, he said.
Morrison sees reason to believe that the agricultural preserve won’t be paved over with the suburbs during its second 50 years. He notes that the county doesn’t have a growth-producing freeway like Interstate 80 in Solano County and Highway 101 in Sonoma County.
“We have something to offer that can’t be replicated easily anywhere else,” Morrison said. “Orange County was named because it had so many extensive orange groves. You can also grow oranges in Tulare and Fresno and Florida and Brazil and people have.”
Today, Orange County in Southern California is wall-to-wall homes, businesses, industries and streets, with barely an orange grove in sight. But Napa County has that special mixture of soil and climate that the French and the wine world call “terroir.”
“You just can’t pick up the Napa Valley and move the wineries to Tehama,” Morrison said. “It wouldn’t work partly because the soil and water may not be appropriate over there, may not have the same terroir. People come here for the wine, but they also come here for the scenery and Tehama doesn’t have that kind of scenery."
So Morrison strikes an optimistic note.
“We have something that’s hard to recreate and I think that will continue," he said. "But it will require constant vigilance and effort and thoughtfulness.”
Wagenknecht said the agricultural preserve is part of the county’s common core values. He pointed to steps to bolster it, such as the passage of Measure P and voter-approved growth lines around cities.
These steps makes Wagenknecht optimistic about the agricultural preserve of the future.
“I really do think you’ll see quite a bit the same over the next 50 years,” he said.
But he added a caveat. He recalled a breakfast he had with Chinese businesspeople at Auberge du Soleil, a long-time resort in the rural hills near Rutherford.
“They were looking round and said, ‘Why don’t you do more of these?’” Wagenknecht said. “I said, ‘We have very limited areas for this. We don’t have a lot of future development possible for those type of (resorts) in the hills. We try to push urban development in the cities.’”
They agreed with that policy, Wagenknecht said. Yet they said they had an idea that would be perfect for Napa Valley.
“What they meant is they have one plan or another on how to monetize the hills that we’ve saved, the ag we’ve saved,” Wagenknecht said. “‘Just let us do this, this one.’ As soon as you let one come in, you have the possibility of (much) more."
Vintner Warren Winiarski, who supported the creation of the preserve in the late 1960s, has a similar view. He doesn’t think the agricultural preserve battle ended in 1968.
“If it succumbs, if it passes, it won’t be direct, it will be in light of other things happening,” Winiarski said. “What is it they say about liberty? Eternal vigilance. Small things along the way will nibble ourselves away from what we want.”
Rex Stults of Napa Valley Vintners also said the county can’t put the agricultural preserve on automatic pilot. For example, he said, cities at some point might want to expand their growth boundaries.
“I just think there are certain pressures that come with a growing population and we need to continue to be vigilant,” he said.
Napa Vision 2050 is a coalition of local environmental and neighborhood groups. It has opposed having Napa Valley and the agricultural preserve tilt too far to the hospitality, entertainment and tourist sides of the wine business.
Eve Kahn of Vision 2050 noted that Napa County considers wineries as a part of agriculture. She is concerned about the county granting rule exceptions to allow wineries to be built closer to roadways, which could create a “strip mall of wineries.”
She sees more than the agricultural preserve as a concern, given the preserve doesn’t extend into the mountains that form the Napa Valley.
“I think the next challenge is to preserve and protect the ag watershed,” Kahn said.
But Jennifer Putnam of Napa Valley Grapegrowers is concerned watershed protection efforts might unduly restrict agriculture. She noted the county policy labels agriculture as the "highest and best use" for land.
“I think there is an increasingly vocal group of people here who don’t understand why agriculture is the highest and best use,” Putnam said. “The unintended consequences of their actions might result in housing becoming the highest and best use.”
She's optimistic Napa County's agriculture will remain a force for decades to come. But that requires educating people about farming in a society where citizens are less connected to the land, she said.
All of this shows that the agricultural has strong local support, but people disagree on the details. The big, black-and-white battle to establish the agricultural preserve has slipped into smaller, grayer skirmishes to keep it.
Still going strong at 100?
Factors beyond Napa County's control could also spell the end of Wine Country, even with an agricultural preserve. A 2013 study published by Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences predicted global warming will make Napa Valley far less suitable for grape-growing by mid-century.
In contrast, a 2011 Climate Study Task Force formed by Napa Valley Vintners concluded that temperature-rise predictions for Napa County are exaggerated. If that research is correct, Napa County might not in 2050 have heat better suited for producing raisins than fine wine.
Grapevine-destroying pests such as the glassy winged sharpshooter - which spreads Pierce's Disease - are another threat. To date, the county has kept these invasive species at bay.
For now, Napa County will celebrate the 50th birthday of the agricultural preserve rather than dwelling on doomsday scenarios.
One idea is to mark the northern and southern entry points to the preserve along Highway 29 and Silverado Trail with commemorative signs. The Farm Bureau’s Love of Land event in July will focus on the preserve. And that’s just a sampling.
Will the county be throwing a similar birthday bash for the agricultural preserve's 100th anniversary in 2068? Wagenknecht as the Board of Supervisors chair expressed optimism, but not overconfidence.
“Once you take it for granted, it could easily slip through your fingers,” Wagenknecht said.
YOUNTVILLE — Napa Valley farmworkers had the opportunity to demonstrate their pruning skills and earn the title of “champion” during the 17th annual Napa County Pruning Contest at Beringer Vineyard’s Gamble Ranch on Saturday.
This was the first time that the contest has been held on a Saturday, which gave families the opportunity to come and join in the festivities, said Jennifer Putnam, executive director of the Napa Valley Grapegrowers. Usually, she said, the contest bleeds into the work day.
“Almost all of the winners had their families there cheering them on,” Putnam said. Being able to see the depth of their appreciation was something she’d never experienced before at the pruning contest, she said.
When Fabiola Rojas Martinez of Bayview Vineyards was named the winner amongst the female contestants, her family, friends and coworkers cheered with pride and took out their cell phones to capture the moment. Rojas hugged each one she passed as she walked to take her place on the winner’s podium. When she stepped up, she threw her right arm in the air in celebration.
Even though this was her first year competing in the pruning contest, she knew she was going to win, she said.
“I’m confident in what I do,” Rojas said in Spanish. And, she said, she had inspiration.
Rojas’ younger sister, Gabriela Rojas, died in childbirth two years ago. Gabriela was a supervisor at Bayview Vineyards and was always a source of motivation for her. Rojas said that, during the competition, it felt like Gabriela was with her.
Rojas has been working in the vineyards for 11 years.
The winner of the men’s competition, David Aguilar of Edcora Vineyards, said that he knew he was going to win this year. This was his third year participating in the contest, but the first time he has won.
“This year I was not too nervous,” Aguilar said. It’s difficult having the timers watching you as you work, he said, but this time it didn’t bother him. “I’ve (been) practicing pruning,” he said.
Aguilar has been working in the vineyards for four years.
Brenda Gonzalez’s husband works with Aguilar, so the whole family was there to watch him win.
“It’s very fun,” Gonzalez said. She was happy that Aguilar won and, she said, she and the children enjoyed the food. Her daughter, Melanie, was busy making wreaths out of freshly cut vines with some of the other children much of the day.
Ruben Rueda, 32, of Pimentel Vineyard Management thought that he had a good shot of getting first place despite it being his first time in the contest. He ended up coming in fourth.
“It went pretty well,” he said in Spanish. Rueda said that he was excited to be in the contest this year because he enjoys his work and likes the competition.
The pruners are judged on speed and quality. They need to work on five vines, leaving one spur and two buds behind. The average time it takes for finalists to complete the work is between one and a half and two minutes.
There were a total of 114 male contestants and 25 female contestants this year. Last year, when the competition was held on a rainy Wednesday, there were 86 contestants in the men’s division and 18 in the women’s.
The contest is hosted by the Napa Valley Grapegrowers and the Napa Valley Farmworker Foundation.
A family dispute is playing out in Napa Superior Court between two daughters of Ed Keith, a Napa landlord, vintner and businessman, over what happened to their father’s $92 million estate, including some $38 million earmarked for a foundation intended to benefit disadvantaged youth.
In 2016, a decade after Keith died, Lisa Keith filed suit to compel her sister, Celeste K. White, to provide a full accounting of millions of dollars that White controlled as co-trustee of the Ed Keith estate.
In court documents, Lisa Keith questions the propriety of a variety of financial decisions made by Celeste White, including $15 million invested in a for-profit real estate company, the purchase of a $2.4 million condo in Santa Barbara, the acquisition of a Land Rover for a Chiles Valley winery and the construction of a stable for their polo ponies.
After more than a year of back and forth court filings, court records for the case now total more than 2,000 pages.
Lisa Keith, who lives in Woodside, is one of Ed Keith’s five children from two marriages. Her sister, Celeste White, lives in Napa with her husband, Dr. Robert White, a surgeon who was named the executor of Ed Keith’s estate.
Keith’s multi-million-dollar estate
Ed Keith was a self-made businessman. In addition to owning more than 500 apartment units in Napa, he once owned the former Parkway Plaza/Mervyns property in downtown Napa, Lincoln Square on Lincoln Avenue, the Migliavacca Mansion on Fourth Street, Brenden Theaters in Vacaville and Modesto, and Catacula Lake Winery in Chiles Valley, among other holdings.
The 1,025-acre winery property was acquired by Keith in the 1960s and operated as the Bar 49 summer camp for girls and boys until 1977, according to White and the winery website.
As an apartment landlord, Keith sometimes found himself at odds with both tenants and the city of Napa over property upkeep and code violations. In 2000, the city sued Keith as a “public nuisance.” A group of tenants also sued Keith over conditions, resulting in a $2 million settlement. Keith eventually sold off his apartments.
In court documents Lisa Keith alleges that the Whites made questionable decisions regarding the money from their father’s estate.
The suit questions whether Ed Keith’s estate was properly divided between the nonprofit foundation and the Keith children.
She asserts that her sister failed to fully fund her father’s foundation in a timely manner, mixed the estate’s charitable assets with taxable assets, failed to provide an accounting of the trust and used trust money for personal benefit.
Lisa Keith believes that an estimated $1.8 million in trustee fees paid to Celeste White should be refunded to the trust.
White’s action’s were improper and “violated her duty to avoid conflicts of interest,” the suit contends.
A sister’s defense
In court papers, Celeste White’s attorneys said White “vigorously disputes” her sister’s contentions and denies any wrongdoing.
According to White’s court filings, her sister’s allegations “simply are not true.”
According to Celeste White, at a 2010 meeting, the five siblings signed off on documents that represented the “final accounting” of their father’s trust.
“Celeste White is deeply saddened that her sister has elected to pursue litigation relating to the estate of their father,” Bill Coyne, her personal attorney who practices in St. Helena, wrote in an email.
This lawsuit is Lisa Keith’s attempt to get more money “beyond the millions of dollars she has already received from her father’s estate,” Coyne said.
Celeste and Robert White “have faithfully exercised their duties in accordance with the wishes expressed by Mr. Keith,” wrote Coyne. “(Celeste) White is confident the court will rule in her favor.”
Back and forth in court
A recent ruling in Napa County Superior Court dealt a blow to Lisa Keith’s case. At the end of 2017, Judge Rodney Stone ruled that she had no standing to ask for an accounting of foundation funds because she is not a director or beneficiary of the foundation.
However, because Lisa Keith is a beneficiary of the trust, she continues to pursue litigation and ask for an accounting of Ed Keith’s trust funds, said Dominic Campisi, a San Francisco attorney representing her.
The case has drawn the attention of the state Attorney General’s office. Deputy Attorney General Christopher Lamerdin has asked for copies of all future court filings to be sent to his office.
The Attorney General’s office would not comment on this case. However, according to the California Attorney General’s “Guide for Charities,” the Attorney General protects charitable gifts and the public beneficiaries’ interests in charitable trusts. The Attorney General may also audit the trust and hold the trustee personally liable for any breaches of a fiduciary duty that lead to the misuse or loss of charitable assets.
The Attorney General’s interest validates his client’s case, said Campisi. When the Attorney General decides to get involved “that indicates this isn’t some grudge match involving the kids,” said Campisi. A foundation worth $38 million”is not some small thing.”
Coyne said that the Attorney General’s interest in this case is just “standard course.”
Campisi “just wants to draw in as many parties as possible,” said Coyne. “He wants to exaggerate the case so that it seems bigger than it really is,” he said. “That’s Mr. Campisi’s litigation style.”
Ed Keith’s many millions
Upon Ed Keith’s death, a number of early distributions dictated by Keith’s trust were made, including $1 million to each of his five children, $2 million to his 12 grandchildren and $10 million to the Catacula Lake Winery. This whittled his estate down to $76 million.
According to Keith’s trust, half of that – $38 million – was to be placed in the Edward A. Keith Foundation, which was created to provide financial and other assistance to disadvantaged youth or children “otherwise in need.”
The other $38 million was to be divided equally among Keith’s five children. After mortgages and other debts were paid, plus some $20 million in estate taxes, a total of $9.2 million was left to be split among the five siblings.
Several years ago, Lisa Keith began to investigate what happened to her father’s foundation. According to court documents, she found several facts that led her to become concerned.
From 2011 to 2014, Celeste White reportedly paid herself and her husband more than $300,000 annually from the foundation, according to court documents.
In addition, $15 million from the foundation was invested in Veritas Refuge LLC, a for-profit real estate investment company managed by Celeste White, according to records. Of that $15 million, $2.4 million was used to buy a condo in Santa Barbara.
“How could this be a prudent investment for a charitable foundation?” Campisi asked.
Celeste White’s attorneys defended her administration. The estate’s holdings were in “total disarray and had been severely mismanaged” in the years leading up to Keith’s death.
Celeste White has spent “hundreds of hours of work and incalculable amounts of energy and stress … administering such a complicated and large trust,” they wrote in court filings.
White’s attorneys said administration fees charged to operate the foundation were not out of the ordinary.
In 2008, White reportedly used foundation funds to build an 8,000-square-foot building on their estate property in Napa County including a stable “for their string of polo ponies,” garage for horse trailer and stable house.
Lisa Keith believes the foundation was “shortchanged to support Celeste and her husband’s lifestyle,” according to court documents.
Celeste White’s attorneys have an explanation.
The Land Rover was bought because it is a four-wheel vehicle that could be used to drive the trust’s winery property, Catacula Lake Winery, located at 4105 Chiles Pope Valley Road.
Such a vehicle had to be “sufficiently upscale” to use for winery business, such as giving tours to prospective purchasers and commuting to various trust properties around Northern and Central California, attorneys wrote.
The winery was sold in 2014 and is now called the Napa Chiles Valley Winery. It’s owned by Qinghai Huzhu Barley Wine Co., Ltd. in Haidong in China.
The profits from Veritas Refuge LLC, real estate investment company, were funneled back into the foundation, the family maintains.
Removed from the foundation
Lisa Keith claims that after her father’s death Celeste White had Lisa Keith and her other siblings removed as directors of the foundation — leaving just Celeste White and her husband Robert in charge of the foundation. Lisa Keith also claims the foundation then dropped any requirement that it benefit disadvantaged youth or children in need.
White’s attorneys said Ed Keith removed Lisa Keith’s name as a director of the Foundation before he died.
Lisa Keith had a “poor relationship” with her father, claim White’s attorneys.
Lisa Keith “is deeply dissatisfied with decisions her father made during his lifetime,” including making Celeste co-trustee of the trust and removing (Lisa) Keith, but not Celeste, from the board of the Foundation,” they contend.
Before his death, “Mr. Keith established the purpose of the foundation to be broader, and help anyone in need, and the directors have been true to that,” said Coyne.
Who got Keith’s money?
According to court documents, the Edward Keith Foundation, later known as the Bar 49 Foundation and Valley Rock Foundation, distributed a total of $38 million.
Some local charities received money, including the Napa Valley Opera House, Napa Emergency Women’s Shelter (now NEWS), St. John’s Lutheran Church, Queen of the Valley Foundation, Nimbus Arts, Ag for Youth, Grace Church of Napa Valley, the Salvation Army and the Soda Canyon Fire Department.
Westmont College, a Christian liberal arts college in Montecito near Santa Barbara and Celeste White’s alma mater, received more than $1.3 million. The National Christian Foundation of Alpharetta, Georgia, received $5 million.
Lisa Keith believes that if her father was alive, he would not have chosen to support some of those charities, said Campisi.
“Ed thought he was going to spend his money on assisting people and programs for troubled and disadvantaged youth,” he said.
The Ed Keith legacy
At the time of Keith’s death, Robert White described the family as “very close.”
“They hope to continue the good work he has done in the valley with conservation and Boys & Girls Club activities, and focus on his dream of improving the lives of young people here,” said Robert White.
As of 2017, Celeste White was the only sibling that still used a Napa address. Darlene Keith lived in San Francisco, David Keith in Sutter Creek, Richard Keith in Petaluma and Lisa Keith in Woodside.
Darlene Keith and David Keith could not be immediately reached to comment on this story. Robert White declined to comment on the litigation.
Reached by phone at his home in Sonoma County, Richard Keith described the case as “a sad situation.”
“I’d like to see all the truth come out,” he said. “Unfortunately, I don’t know if that’s going to work or not.”
He’s not sure what happened with the trust and foundation. However, “What I can’t believe is that my father would ever put one person,” alone, in charge of his trust or foundation, Richard Keith said.
“And I know he’d like to see the money going towards children like the Boys and Girls Club rather than a host of other charitable groups that have nothing to do with” helping underprivileged children, he said.
“Plus, he didn’t want anyone to get paid” for working on the foundation board, Richard Keith said.
If there is one thing the family can agree on it’s that Ed Keith would not have wanted a fight over his estate.
“He’d be horrified,” said Robert White.
“He’d be upset,” said Richard Keith.
A status conference is set for March 28.