Napa County supervisors finally had their say on how to balance oak and watershed protections with new vineyard and other rural development after hearing plenty of passionate, conflicting advice from the public.
Supervisors are trying to resolve the Measure C battle that has split the community. The watershed and oak protection citizens’ initiative narrowly lost in the June 2018 election.
“Right now, we’re just doing our best to define the policy questions,” said Board of Supervisors Chairman Ryan Gregory as supervisors took a break in their deliberations in a meeting that topped six hours Tuesday.
County Planning Commission meetings will follow to delve more deeply into the issues. The Board of Supervisors isn’t scheduled to take a decisive vote until March 19 at the earliest.
Many of the community disagreements come down to how many oaks to protect and how far to keep new vineyards and other development away from streams and city reservoirs. Supervisors went through a list with 17 staff recommendations and gave their opinions.
The Board unanimously favored banning most development on slopes 30 percent or greater, such as most new vineyard development. A map shows this 30-percent slope land covers much of the county.
“I’m in favor of 30 percent today,” Supervisor Brad Wagenknecht said. “In a lot of these things, I’m going to say, ‘This is where I’m going today.’”
Napa County presently requires property owners developing land in municipal reservoir watersheds to keep at least 60 percent of the tree canopy. County staff recommended extending this law to the rest of the unincorporated county, but not increasing the percentages.
Supervisors quickly favored extending the protections to all unincorporated areas. They struggled to arrive at a percentage.
Supervisor Alfredo Pedroza suggested 70 percent canopy retention. Wagenknecht favored something higher. Supervisor Belia Ramos suggested a tiered approach for different slopes. Supervisor Diane Dillon was concerned how all of the new proposed policies, when taken together, might affect management of potentially flammable fuels.
As of 4:30 p.m. Tuesday, supervisors had yet to arrive at an answer.
Measure C backers wanted to increase the tree canopy protection to 85 percent. The Napa County Farm Bureau, Winegrowers of Napa County and Coalition Napa Valley suggested keeping the present law without extending protections beyond the municipal watersheds.
Supervisors want the county Planning Commission to explore establishing buffers of 200 feet to 500 feet around city reservoirs. Factors could include how much land Napa, Yountville, St. Helena and Calistoga own around their various reservoirs in local mountains.
One size does not fit all, Dillon said.
Clearly, supervisors were not going to make everybody in the packed room happy. More than 60 people came to the lectern during public comments with different points of view.
“I hate to see people fighting one another,” grape grower Davie Pina said. “I hate to see initiatives coming if there’s no science to it.”
The group Napa Vision 2050, a backer of Measure C, encouraged supervisors to be “courageous,” “remove the filters of denial” and “stop the dithering, the finger-pointing and the off-loading of responsibility.”
“For the sake of saving the world, we, the people who live here in Napa County and everyone else in the world, need leaders who will make personal sacrifices to ensure a healthy world for all,” Vision 2050 President Charlotte Williams wrote to the county. “We need you to take immediate action to protect and regenerate our natural environment.”
Napa Valley Grapegrowers President Paul Goldberg urged supervisors not to hastily add to the regulations faced by farmers.
“We need you to do your research and turn over every stone to make sure any changes you make are based on science,” Goldberg told supervisors.
Napa County Farm Bureau, Winegrowers of Napa County and Coalition Napa Valley submitted a joint letter saying current laws successfully sustain the environment. Still, the groups said, they remain open to changes based on Napa-specific science and evidence.
Supervisors should act in a manner consistent with science, rather than respond to “an environment where undue political pressure or threat of an initiative is a catalyst for change,” wrote Farm Bureau President Johnnie White, Winegrowers President Pina and Chuck Wagner of Coalition Napa Valley.
“It all comes down to you,” vintner Stuart Smith told supervisors. “Will you surrender to emotion or have the courage to support the general plan, science and facts?”
Napa City Councilman Scott Sedgley talked about Lake Hennessey reservoir and Milliken Reservoir, which provide water to city residents and businesses. He wants to protect the water that runs off the hills into the reservoirs. Visit the reservoirs after major storms and they look like mud puddles, he said.
Resident Patricia Damery said 90 percent tree canopy protection is critical. Climate change has changed everything, she said.
“Stating the science is missing does not mean the science is missing,” she said. “It’s a fighting tactic we’ve begun to use.”
The Center for Biological Diversity claimed to be using science. Among other things, it called for protecting 90 percent of the oak woodland canopy and 60 percent of grasslands and shrub land in a county that is a “biodiversity hot spot” with 150 special-status plant and animal species.
Resident Terry Scott wants the county to better enforce the rules it already has. He pointed to a hillside vineyard near Yountville that recently slid onto a county road with big storms.
“We’re approving things, but we’re not checking to see they are built the way they are approved,” Scott said.
This story has been changed since first posting to clarify Supervisor Diane Dillon's comment.
Plans to replace a single-story cottage on Clay Street with a four-story commercial building have been significantly downsized, according to a new application submitted to the city in early January.
Instead of building a four-story, 12,000-square-foot building with eight to 10 commercial condos, a restaurant and retail space, the property owners now want to build two much smaller, two-story, detached mixed-use structures at 1330 Clay St.
“We had to scale back our last rendition of the project,” said owner Thomas Hodge of R&H Development.
Part of that had to do with the parking costs associated with the redevelopment.
Because of its downtown location, the Hodge parcel does not require on-premises parking for commercial uses. Its owners would instead pay into a city fund for a future garage.
However, in 2016, during the initial stages of the development, those parking fees rose significantly– from $7,500 to $23,000 for each parking space required by a downtown project.
After the family estimated it would cost an estimated $736,000 for that parking fee, they began to reconsider their options.
“The parking exemption fee was going to be a little too costly,” and not financially feasible, said Hodge in an interview on Wednesday. A smaller project is less expensive and easier to build, he said. Plus, two stories instead of four “is a better fit for the area,” he said.
The home is located between the former home the city leases for its water division and a tall building home to AT&T operations.
The Hodge family bought the 1,295-square-foot cottage in 2015 for approximately $460,000.
The new plan includes demolition of the home and the new construction of two detached mixed-use structures: a 1,725-square-foot office/retail space and a 2-bedroom, 2,910-square-foot “visitor accommodation unit.”
The visitor unit “provides occupants a unique option in comparison to the conventional visitor accommodation units in the surrounding area,” the application stated.
That unit would include “spacious suites along with a lively living area, gourmet kitchen, outdoor courtyard, outdoor spa, lounge room and a fitness/wellness room.”
That unit is meant for small groups or families who want stay together in one place, said Hodge.
“We think it’s something that’s needed” for a family or small groups that want visitor accommodations in the downtown area, he said. “I don’t know of anything that’s like that in the core of downtown.”
Most of the other downtown hotels are standard hotel room sized, he said. “We just want to offer something that’s a little bit different.”
The family previously developed something similar recently in Calistoga that includes three visitor units, said Hodge. That project is now known as the Bungalows at Calistoga.
“That’s kind of how we got this idea,” he said.
The project is currently being reviewed by the city planning department.
Most cellphone users in Napa County may be able to text 911 for help within a month or two.
People should not think of the texting program as a replacement for a phone call, but it may help in situations where it is dangerous for someone to call, such as a domestic violence incident or home burglary, Gus Ulloth, head of the city of Napa’s 911 communications. Having a conversation with 911 dispatchers over text can be cumbersome, but it allows first responders to have a general idea of what they’re walking into.
Proponents say texting 911 is a significant development for those who are deaf, hard of hearing or have a speech disability.
The launch of 911 texting is expected to cover the county, except for St. Helena or Calistoga whose residents will not be able to use the service, Ulloth said.
St. Helena City Manager Mark Prestwich said the city is not developing a 911 texting program. Calistoga officials did not return requests Tuesday seeking clarification on if or when residents would be able to text 911.
More than 18,000 people in California texted 911 in 2017, according to a 2018 report from the state emergency services office. That’s a small fraction of the 28 million 911 calls made that year.
Eighty percent of emergency calls came from a cellphone, 15 percent came from a landline, and a total of five percent came from various other technologies, according to the report.
The local California Highway Patrol is one of about 180 law enforcement agencies in the state that already accept texts to 911. All CHP agencies in the Bay Area participate, Ulloth said, and texts can be directed to CHP dispatchers when a cellphone user is on a state road.
As technology has evolved, so has the way that the public tries to contact emergency officials. Ulloth believes this service is one that the community needs.
It costs $20,000 per year to pay for the technology and systems that keep the text to 911 program running, he said.
The city is still working through kinks with the program, but it hopes to debut and test the service with an unofficial launch within a month. Dispatchers will be trained on the service, but anyone who happens to text 911 during that time will still receive service. The city will announce the program is up and running about a month after its unofficial launch.
In the meantime, anyone who tries to text 911 in Napa County will receive an immediate reply directing the person to call 911 for assistance.
PG&E Corp., which owns California’s largest electric utility, filed for bankruptcy protection Tuesday in anticipation of huge legal claims, starting an unpredictable process that could take years to resolve and is likely to result in higher energy bills for the millions of Californians who depend on Pacific Gas & Electric for their power.
PG&E said a Chapter 11 bankruptcy filing, which allows the company to continue operating while it comes up with a plan to pay its debts, was the only way to deal with billions of dollars in potential liabilities from a series of deadly wildfires. Many of those were sparked by the company’s power grid infrastructure.
“Through this process, we will prioritize what matters most to our customers and the communities we serve — safety and reliability,” interim Chief Executive John R. Simon said in a statement. “We believe that this process will make sure that we have sufficient liquidity to serve our customers and support our operations and obligations.”
Energy experts say PG&E’s rates probably will increase when the utility emerges from Chapter 11 protection because bankruptcy inevitably makes it more expensive for a company to borrow money, and the utility passes costs along to its customers.
“It’s almost impossible to see a way out of this that doesn’t have some short-term cost increases,” Ralph Cavanagh, co-director of the energy program at the Natural Resources Defense Council, said in a recent interview.
A bankruptcy judge could also allow PG&E to reduce its eventual payouts to California fire victims. That could include Paradise residents whose homes were destroyed by last year’s Camp fire, if PG&E’s equipment is found to have sparked the blaze. The utility has already started skipping payments to families whose properties were destroyed by the 2015 Butte fire, which was caused by a tree falling on a PG&E power line.
PG&E officials say electricity and natural gas service will continue uninterrupted for its 16 million customers in Northern and Central California. The company has lined up at least $5.5 billion from several banks to fund its operations during what it expects to be a two-year bankruptcy process, and it filed a motion Tuesday asking the court to approve that so-called debtor-in-possession agreement.
Lawmakers watched in dismay as PG&E chose bankruptcy, but there was nothing they could do to stop the company from filing. State Sen. Bill Dodd, D-Napa, said the situation is “extremely disappointing and underscores the need for change at PG&E in both its leadership and corporate culture.” Assemblyman Chris Holden (D-Pasadena), who chairs the Utilities and Energy Committee, lamented that the effect on fire victims and PG&E ratepayers “may be severe.”
“Our goal all along was to protect the most vulnerable, but now the Bankruptcy Court will be managing the future of PG&E and its creditors, including the damages of fire victims for which the utility is deemed responsible,” Holden said in a statement.
PG&E listed $71.4 billion in assets and nearly $51.7 billion in total debts. The firm said it filed requests for authorization to continue paying employee wages and to continue existing customer programs, including energy efficiency and support for low-income ratepayers. It also said it intends to pay its suppliers under normal terms for goods and services provided on or after the date of the bankruptcy filing.
Financial pressure has been mounting on PG&E since October 2017, when a series of wildfires ravaged Northern California, killing 44 people. State investigators determined that PG&E’s equipment sparked or contributed to more than a dozen of those fires, which killed 22 people. The company’s crisis only grew with the November 2018 Camp fire, which killed 86 people and destroyed most of the town of Paradise.
The California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection has yet to announce a cause for the Camp fire, but PG&E’s infrastructure is suspected. The utility company’s stock has lost more than 80 percent of its value since the 2017 fires broke out, and its credit rating has been downgraded to junk status.
PG&E has blamed its wildfire costs, in part, on climate change, which scientists say is contributing to bigger and hotter fires in California and across the western United States. The company has also pushed lawmakers to rewrite the state’s strict liability laws, which allow utilities to be held liable for wildfires sparked by their infrastructure even if they follow all safety rules and aren’t found negligent.
PG&E has estimated its potential wildfire liabilities at $30 billion or more, although that number includes the Tubbs fire, the biggest and deadliest of the 2017 Northern California blazes. Cal Fire announced last week that the Tubbs fire wasn’t caused by PG&E, which by some estimates could cut the company’s potential liabilities in half.
Even without Tubbs fire damages on its ledger, PG&E’s liabilities could still exceed the company’s market value, which was down to about $7 billion on Tuesday.
“To be clear, we have heard the calls for change and we are determined to take action throughout this process to build the energy system our customers want and deserve,” Simon, the company’s chief executive, said Tuesday.
Critics say PG&E has exaggerated its financial woes and is filing for bankruptcy as a ploy to extract investor-friendly concessions from the Legislature or regulators. Those critics include ratepayer advocacy groups and lawyers for fire victims, whose clients could see court awards reduced by a bankruptcy judge. They also include BlueMountain Capital Management, a hedge fund that holds more than 11 million shares of PG&E stock that could be wiped out.
BlueMountain urged PG&E’s management not to go through with the bankruptcy filing and said last week it would nominate a full slate of new directors to the company’s board.
“Instead of rolling up their sleeves and getting to work, current board members are poised to concede defeat and pass the buck to a bankruptcy judge. There is no imminent financial crisis — there is a leadership crisis,” BlueMountain said in an open letter to other shareholders, asking them to join the hedge fund in its protests.
In addition to the likelihood of higher electricity rates and lower payouts for wildfire victims, PG&E’s bankruptcy could affect California’s ability to meet its climate change goals. Those goals depend on a rapid transition from fossil fuels to climate-friendly power sources, and state officials have been counting on PG&E to make massive investments in solar and wind farms and other clean energy technologies.
Already, PG&E has suggested it could seek to nullify existing contracts to buy power from solar and wind farms, or to slash payments under those deals. That possibility is worrying developers who have contracts with PG&E, and clean energy advocates who fear a chain reaction where lenders are hesitant to finance future projects in California.
The Florida-based developer NextEra Energy Resources has asked the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission to protect its contracts with PG&E. The agency gave NextEra an early victory last week, ruling it has “concurrent jurisdiction” with the bankruptcy court over those contracts. But PG&E objected on Tuesday, asking the bankruptcy court to declare that federal regulators have no say over the fate of those contracts.
It’s far from clear what will happen next.
Some PG&E critics have called for the Legislature and Gov. Gavin Newsom to break the company into smaller pieces or convert it into a public entity. San Francisco has said it will study the possibility of acquiring PG&E’s electrical infrastructure in the city.
Most utility experts say a government takeover is unlikely because it could saddle state or local agencies with huge liabilities from future fires without addressing the causes of those fires. Newsom has played his cards close to his vest, saying Tuesday that his administration “will continue working to ensure that Californians have access to safe, reliable and affordable service, that victims and employees are treated fairly, and that California continues to make forward progress on our climate change goals.”
PG&E’s bankruptcy filing “does not change my focus, which remains protecting the best interests of the people of California,” Newsom said in a statement.
Unlike most companies that enter into bankruptcy protection, PG&E is a regulated monopoly that provides an essential public service. The California Public Utilities Commission will need to approve any reorganization plan that involves raising electricity rates, giving the state some ability to protect the interests of ratepayers.
But critics aren’t happy with how the PUC and its president, Michael Picker, have handled PG&E’s bankruptcy so far.
On Monday, the commission unanimously approved the company’s request to take on up to $10 billion in debtor-in-possession financing, over the objections of consumer watchdog groups that said the agency was needlessly rushing to accommodate PG&E’s planned Chapter 11 filing. The raucous emergency meeting, held on short notice, was attended by several angry utility customers and labor representatives who chanted “shame, shame” as the commissioners voted.
The commission’s own Public Advocates Office said the agency’s decision failed to include important safeguards for ratepayers, such as requiring that none of the financing go toward management bonuses or to any other purpose not necessary to keep the lights on. The Utility Reform Network, an independent ratepayer advocacy group based in San Francisco, accused the commission of blindly accepting PG&E’s claim that it needed billions in emergency cash to fund its operations.
Picker defended the commission’s decision on Monday, citing a “substantial risk” that PG&E won’t be able to keep providing reliable power and gas service without the emergency funding. He also said PG&E won’t be able to pass along any of the costs to ratepayers until the commission reviews how the utility ultimately spends the money.
“The action does not encourage or enable PG&E to seek bankruptcy. Under federal law that is their choice. This decision just ensures they can take actions necessary to continue providing service in bankruptcy,” Picker said.
Even without the fires, PG&E continues to grapple with the fallout from the 2010 explosion of one of its natural gas pipelines, which killed eight people and destroyed 38 homes in San Bruno. PG&E was fined $1.6 billion by the PUC and $3 million by a federal judge. Just last month, the commission accused PG&E of falsifying pipeline safety records for years after the deadly explosion.
The company is still on probation after a criminal conviction stemming from the gas explosion. The federal judge overseeing the probation, William Alsup, said this month that he may order PG&E to inspect its entire electric grid and do extensive tree-trimming before this summer, which PG&E says could cost as much as $150 billion.
Alsup also suggested he could order PG&E to preemptively shut off electricity in certain areas when strong wind and other weather conditions create a high fire risk. PG&E and the state’s other big investor-owned utilities, Southern California Edison and San Diego Gas & Electric, rarely use preemptive power shutoffs as a wildfire prevention strategy, but that could change as climate change fuels bigger fires.
The last time PG&E filed for bankruptcy, in 2001, fires had nothing to do with it.
That bankruptcy was a result of California’s infamous energy crisis, in which a failed deregulation plan allowed Enron Corp. and other energy traders to manipulate markets and send prices skyrocketing. PG&E said it needed relief from $9 billion in debt that it incurred because it couldn’t recover its higher costs from ratepayers.
PG&E emerged from that bankruptcy process with a reorganization plan that saw investors largely made whole. The company was also allowed to boost its regulated profits for years to come. Customers, meanwhile, were saddled with higher rates.