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Napa County explores limiting agricultural preserve McMansions
  • Updated

Napa County is considering a one-acre development limit for new homes allowed amid the agricultural preserve, a move to help protect prime Napa Valley farmland.

County law allows a house and related uses on each rural parcel. Presently, there is no limit as to how big a house can be if it complies with various setbacks, such as for streams. 

In some cases, a mansion and landscaping and sports courts cover two acres and more. County Supervisor Diane Dillon has voiced concern about the situation.

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“It’s one of those things that slowly, slowly, slowly can erode the ag preserve,” she said last week. “That’s why it’s a good thing to put a control in place now.”

Some homes in the agricultural preserve are small and quaint farmhouses. Others are imposing, such as a two-home Tuscan estate described by Zillow as having 11 bedrooms, 12 bathrooms and a bridged swimming pool.

The county recently released a proposed law that would still allow big homes, but with limits. A new home, a second unit, gazebos, deck, trellises, tennis courts, pools, parking area, landscaping and other features would in most cases have to be within one contiguous acre.

An acre is slightly smaller than the city of Napa's Monarch and Summerfield parks. The typical city neighborhood park is closer to two or three acres.

Among the features not included for the one-acre building envelope calculation would be wells and septic systems. Those desiring home sites bigger than an acre could seek a use permit from the county Zoning Administrator at a public hearing.

The proposed one-acre limit would not apply to new homes in the agricultural watershed zoning district. That district covers most parts of rural Napa County away from the Napa Valley floor, such as the mountains framing the valley.

Rather, it would focus on the agricultural preserve established by the county in 1968 and expanded in subsequent years to today's 31,609 acres. The goal was to keep the heart of Napa Valley wine country from being paved over.

Agricultural preserve zoning helped keep city-style growth away from rural Napa Valley farmland. But it didn’t stop new wineries and rural homes from being built.

About six years ago, local officials had new concerns about prime agricultural land being developed. The county’s Agricultural Protection Advisory Committee (APAC) held a series of 2015 meetings.

New winery developments are limited to 15 acres or 25% of a parcel, whichever is less. The commission's attention turned to new homes.

“The biggest threat to the valley isn’t wineries; it is the proliferation of mansions,” the group’s report states at one point, though not necessarily as a majority opinion.

In March 2016, the Board of Supervisors began exploring a possible housing footprint limit as part of the many APAC ideas. The conversation came up again at a November 2018 Board of Supervisors meeting.

The next step will be a proposed law going to the Napa County Planning Commission. That could happen in October. Ultimately, the Board of Supervisors will decide the issue.


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The role of rootstocks in establishing more resilient vineyards
  • Updated

Steve Matthiasson often consults with fellow Napa Valley winemakers and vineyard owners, putting their heads together each year to troubleshoot environmental problems that occur.

But now, as continued drought conditions further exacerbate these problems in California, he says he is being called upon more and more frequently.

“We are always trying to conserve water in Napa because we have a limited aquifer and that is really important for the health of the rivers to get more flow,” he said, “[But] I have had a few more people reach out about water than normal.”

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Matthiasson -- who is at the helm of Matthiasson Wines alongside his wife, Jill -- predicts yields are going to be “way off” this harvest season. To those in the industry, these drought conditions have been and will continue to be frightening. 

“A lot of vineyards worry about the long-term health of the vineyard on top of the loss of crop this year, and there’s no guarantee we are going to get rain this winter ... It’s a scary time.”

A major suggestion that Matthiasson has for those with impacted crops is to, if financially and physically possible, replant their vineyard with more drought-tolerant rootstocks. Different varieties of grape have different levels of tolerance against salinity, saturated soils, disease, pests, and the like, so the chosen variety planted affects much more than the flavor, but also the viability of the vine.

“You can drive around and probably see a lot of vineyards getting replanted right now, and that’s because of the market, but it's an opportunity for people,” said Matthiasson. “The nurseries are selling way more drought-resistant rootstocks than they normally do, and that can be a big change because for the life of those vineyards, they are going to use less water.”

On his own vineyard, Matthiasson has been planting rootstocks that are more drought tolerant than typically warranted for the soil type. These stronger rootstocks require less water, and thus will require less irrigation than previously necessary.

“There are some other things you can do with row orientation and soil prep so that the vineyard uses less water,” he said, “But vineyards that were planted 15-25 years ago hadn’t gone through these droughts so lower, bigger rootstocks were more in vogue.”

So while you can change the irrigation strategy, train roots further into the soil, compost, plant cover crop or implement shade cloths to save water in a vineyard, it all really boils down to how readily your plants can access the Goldilockian amount of water, which in itself boils down to the physiology of the vines.

Dr. Megan Bartlett of UC-Davis's Viticulture and Enology Department focuses much of her research on what makes a rootstock drought tolerant, as it is very difficult to tell in advance whether a rootstock will possess those traits.

“Which isn’t a problem when you have enough rootstocks that you can take out to a field and you can compare them in a vineyard over a couple years, but if you are breeding new rootstocks to be more drought tolerant, then you are dealing with hundreds of genotypes,” she said. “You need something that you can sort of screen through very quickly, and find out which ones will be the most promising … That is part of what we work on, is trying to identify those traits so you can choose which ones to focus on in the field.”

Bartlett says that her current research has a few promising characteristics, with follow-up work focusing on root patterns and the way the plant exchanges gas when experiencing water stress.

“Some of the things that have come up as really important are just patterns in root growth, where you can see this greater root proliferation in wetter areas of the soil, and that’s a really good sign for a drought-tolerant rootstock,” she said. “We’ve also been investigating some traits closely related to gas exchange under water stress which seems to be related to the structural integrity of the root.”

Bartlett has all sorts of suggestions for the vintners that come asking her and her colleagues for advice, ranging from re-planting and re-orienting your vineyard’s rows to adjusting the amount of canopy growing from your vines. She explained how things that seem as simple as row orientation dramatically affect the outcome of grapes, especially while undergoing drought.

“When you are oriented to get as much sunlight during the day, in cooler climates that is exactly what you want to get as much light and heat on the fruit to ripen it,” she said. “But in warmer areas like California, especially as you get further south and further into the valley, you can end up having too much heat on the fruit, which reduces quality and yield, so one of the things you can do is change that row orientation so you are getting less sun on the fruit in the afternoon, and you are getting more of your sun in the morning.”

Similarly, the canopy is important to shield the fruit from being baked in the sun, but also requires more water to keep that part of the plant alive. Bartlett said there are a few ways to manipulate canopy growth, but warns that you have to find a careful balance to avoid scorching or drying out your plant.

“You can change the amount of canopy and the amount of fruit that you are trying to ripen in that particular year, so you can choose to reduce your yields and that will allow you to do a more aggressive shoot thinning, and then you have less canopy area that is out there losing water,” she said. “[But] you can’t totally denude the canopy, because that will backfire on you.”

This same balance is necessary when considering re-planting, too, as the variability of conditions can negatively affect a drought-tolerant rootstock when the site gets more water than usual.

“The rootstocks that are drought sensitive are also supposed to bring down vigor on really wet sites or during really wet years, so one of the issues you can run into if you run into a really drought tolerant rootstock is that in a year where you don’t have drought, you are going to run into really large vines,” she said. “You have to think about your site and how variable the conditions are.”

While a one-size-fits-all drought solution would be great, there are too many factors across terroir, year, climate and water access to warrant such a thing. Replanting a vineyard is expensive, not even considering loss of crop, a delay in harvest, and the risk of abandoning your vines. (And that is if the re-plant goes successfully.)

With a little penny-pinching, though, Matthiasson thinks more vintners would re-plant their vineyards with these principles in mind if they were given the resources to do so.

“In Europe, there’s government assistance for replanting vineyards,” said Matthiasson, “And I mean this is big picture, and probably at the federal level, but having some help replanting to more drought-tolerant rootstocks would be great … We don’t tend to get agricultural subsidies that other crops get just because our industry is concentrated mostly in one state.”

While the state does offer incentives through the Healthy Soils Program for compost and cover crops -- which do help soils retain more water and thus cuts down on necessary irrigation -- there are not currently any programs oriented toward increasing drought resiliency by replanting.

“There’s some funding buckets, but we don't have anything for more drought resilient vineyards,” said Matthiasson. He also thinks that the government should provide some sort of assistance for applying to grants, as the process is often time-consuming and confusing.

“I think that people that are not in agriculture sometimes don’t understand why farmers are still doing practices that might seem antiquated or reactionary,” he said, “But it’s not easy, and that’s why incentives would be nice.”

Bartlett said there is also a larger barrier to resilient vineyards beyond the brute economic cost, that being the case of whether there is even enough water to go around at all.

“You can be as efficient as possible, and that helps and it reduces everyone’s need for water because there is more water to go around, but in some cases, there is a limit to what you can do,” she said. “Some places have wells and have the ability to reach more groundwater, but other places are smaller and they can’t really do that, they don’t have holding ponds … All of these strategies can help, but there really is a minimum amount of water needed to produce a crop.”

Experts: Shots working
  • Updated

The average person doesn't need a COVID-19 booster yet, an international group of scientists — including two top U.S. regulators — wrote Monday in a scientific journal.

The experts reviewed studies of the vaccines' performance and concluded the shots are working well despite the extra-contagious delta variant, especially against severe disease.

"Even in populations with fairly high vaccination rates, the unvaccinated are still the major drivers of transmission" at this stage of the pandemic, they concluded.

The opinion piece, published in The Lancet, illustrates the intense scientific debate about who needs booster doses and when, a decision the U.S. and other countries are grappling with.

After revelations of political meddling in the Trump administration's coronavirus response, President Joe Biden promised to "follow the science." But the review raises the question of whether his administration is moving faster than the experts.

The authors include two leading vaccine reviewers at the Food and Drug Administration, Drs. Phil Krause and Marion Gruber, who recently announced they will step down this fall. Among the other 16 authors are leading vaccine researchers in the U.S., Britain, France, South Africa and India, plus scientists with the World Health Organization, which already urged a moratorium on boosters until poor countries are better vaccinated.

In the U.S., the White House has begun planning for boosters this month, if both the FDA and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention agree. Advisers to the FDA will weigh evidence about an extra Pfizer shot Friday at a key public meeting.

Colorado Gov. Jared Polis on Monday urged the Food and Drug Administration to quickly authorize booster shots for the Pfizer coronavirus vaccine as well as permit children ages 5 to 11 to be vaccinated.

Polis said that foot-dragging by U.S. health officials has cost lives. “The FDA needs to get out of their ivory tower and realize there is a real life pandemic,” he said.

Georgetown University's Larry Gostin said the paper "throws gasoline on the fire" in the debate about whether most Americans truly need boosters and whether the White House got ahead of scientists.

"It's always a fundamental error of process to make a scientific announcement before the public health agencies have acted and that's exactly what happened here," said Gostin, a lawyer and public health specialist.

The U.S. already offers an extra dose of the Pfizer or Moderna vaccines to people with severely weakened immune systems.

For the general population, the debate is boiling down to whether boosters should be given even though the vaccines are still offering high protection against severe disease — possibly in hopes of blocking milder "breakthrough" infections among the fully vaccinated.

Last week, CDC Director Dr. Rochelle Walensky said new data showed that as delta surged, the unvaccinated were 4.5 times more likely than the fully vaccinated to get infected, over 10 times more likely to be hospitalized and 11 times more likely to die. Still, government scientists are also weighing hints that protection is waning among older adults who were vaccinated early last winter.

The writers of Monday's commentary reported reviewing worldwide studies since delta began surging, mostly of U.S. and European vaccines. The team concluded "none of these studies has provided credible evidence of substantially declining protection against severe disease."

Because the body builds layers of immunity, gradual drops in antibody levels don't necessarily mean overall effectiveness is dropping "and reductions in vaccine efficacy against mild disease do not necessarily predict reductions in the (typically higher) efficacy against severe disease," they wrote.

The more the virus spreads, the more opportunity it has to evolve into strains that could escape current vaccines. The Lancet reviewers suggest there could be bigger gains from creating booster doses that better match circulating variants, much like flu vaccine is regularly updated, than from just giving extra doses of the original vaccine.

"There is an opportunity now to study variant-based boosters before there is widespread need for them," the scientists wrote.

In other developments:

  • Federal Judge Robert Pratt on Monday ordered the state of Iowa to immediately halt enforcement of a law that prevents school boards from ordering masks to be worn to help prevent the spread of COVID-19. Pratt said the law passed in May substantially increases the risk of several children with health conditions of contracting COVID-19.
  • Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis threatened local governments Monday with $5,000 fines per violation for requiring their employees to get vaccinated against the coronavirus that has overrun hospitals across the state. DeSantis said local municipalities potentially face millions of dollars in fines for implementing a requirement that their employees get a COVID-19 vaccine.

Pandemic relief
California back rent payments remain slow but speed up as eviction ban approaches end
  • Updated

California tenants financially affected by the pandemic are still protected from being evicted for not paying rent. But the Sept. 30 end date of the statewide eviction ban is inching ever closer.

The most recent extension of the ban, Assembly Bill 832, was signed into law by Gov. Gavin Newsom on June 28. Pablo Zatarain, executive director of Fair Housing Napa Valley, said California housing advocates aren’t optimistic that another extension from the state government will be arriving this time around.

The distribution of $5.2 billion from a rental relief program established by AB 832 will, however, continue beyond Sept. 30. Tenants making at or below 80% of area median income will remain eligible to be reimbursed by the program for 100% of owed back rent, to pay to landlords, starting from March last year. Those on the lower end of the income scale are being prioritized, and eligible renters can also apply to be reimbursed for three months of forward rent.

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AMI differs depending on location and number of people in the household. The current AMI for Napa County is $76,450 for a 1-person household and $109,200 for a 4-person household, according to the California Department of Housing and Community Development. So, a tenant living in a 1-person household needs to make at or below $63,050 each year to be eligible for relief, while a 4-person household needs to make at or below $90,050.

Renters who don’t fall into the income bracket for the 100% reimbursement are still protected from evictions for nonpayment of rent if they pay at least 25% of what they owe — going back to Sept. 1 last year — by Sept. 30. Landlords can take those renters to small claims court beginning on Nov. 1 to get the money they’re owed, but won’t be allowed to evict them for not paying rent. 

Zatarain said a local assistance program that helps tenants and landlords through the applications for the rental relief program will also continue to run.

The assistance program, established in late July, is operated by FHNV, On the Move and Upvalley Family Centers. Zatarain said the program helps local tenants and landlords work through the lengthy state applications — which require tenants to find several documents to verify tenancy and income — step by step, either over the phone or in-person.

“There are still a lot of questions in terms of what’s next,” Zatarain said. “Primarily, right now, our focus is on getting as many applications for rental assistance done as possible in anticipation that there may not be another extension.”

Early on, an indication of the difficulties tenants and landlords were facing was a low application and payout rate for the program.  Part of the logic for establishing the application assistance program, according to Zatarain, is that language and technology access issues had likely been getting in the way of families who were seeking to apply for rental relief.

Applications have increased substantially since then, both locally and across California. Distribution of the state funds set aside for rental relief is still moving slowly, though several times faster than it was moving at the end of June, according to CalMatters reporting.

According to state data on Monday, 176,163 complete applications had been submitted to the state, requesting about $2.2 billion in relief. About $526 million has gone out so far, to 44,432 households, averaging about $12,000 per household in aid.

A recent analysis of California’s rental debt by Oakland-based research group Policy Link found that roughly 753,000 California families are behind on rent, and collectively owe $2.8 billion.

Zatarain said that, locally, there’s definitely been an uptick in completed applications, especially in recent weeks. In Napa County, 563 complete applications have been received by the state so far, representing a need of roughly $6.8 million. And 167 households have been served, with payouts totaling about $2 million.

Zatarain added the groups leading the assistance on the rental assistance applications are still trying to reach out to more eligible tenants, especially those who are less engaged, possibly because of language or technology access issues.

“We’re just trying to increase the number of applicants,” Zatarain said. “We are in discussions and plans and efforts to increase outreach to continue spreading the word and really use the entire month of September as a big outreach push.”

Though the end of the eviction moratorium won’t end the assistance program, Zatarain added, it does threaten to make the rental relief application process shakier because of a changed relationship between tenants and landlords. A level of cooperation is needed between the tenant and the landlord in many cases for the application process to run smoothly, he said.

“It creates more of an adversarial relationship and process than it does a collaborative one,” Zatarain said. “The landlord will have the option, and some landlords will absolutely take it, to not only get their money but get this person out.”

After Sept. 30, evictions for nonpayment of rent can technically resume. But renters who make less than 80% of AMI — if they’ve been financially impacted by COVID-19 — still have 15 days to apply for rental assistance funds after receiving an eviction notice. An eviction in that case can only move forward if the tenant doesn’t qualify for aid or complete the application. (Though, to take advantage of those protections and avoid eviction, tenants will need to be able to show evidence in court that they applied for assistance.)

“As long as there’s funding available to apply for, we will continue to offer assistance,” Zatarain said.


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