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Priyanka Dhar French is only the third winemaker in Signorello's decades-long history. 

Napa County ready to approve Walt Ranch greenhouse gas plan
  • Updated

Napa County has tentatively approved changes to the controversial Walt Ranch vineyard development to try to address a court decision involving greenhouse gases.

The planned vineyard project would remove about 14,000 carbon-sequestering trees. Walt Ranch planned in return to preserve 248 acres of woodlands. But the courts thought some of this land might already be undevelopable.

Applicant Hall Brambletree Associates in May presented to the county a revised proposal it said provides “overwhelming mitigation.”

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A conservation easement would preserve up to 124 acres of Walt Ranch woodlands that otherwise could be developed. The land is not restricted because of steep slopes or watersheds, proponents said.

Hall Brambletree would also plant 16,790 oaks. It would monitor the trees and replant if necessary so at least 80% survive after five years.

“Hall also wishes to disincentive the relentless opposition that has resulted in years of delay,” Mike Reynolds of Hall Brambletree wrote to the county.

To do this, Hall Brambletree is willing to plant yet another 16,790 oaks for a total of 33,580— but only if no one challenges the county approval.

Planning, Building and Environmental Services Director David Morrison issued a tentative approval that is to become final on Oct. 1. His decision can be appealed to the county Board of Supervisors. The issue could also potentially return to the courts.

The Center for Biological Diversity has been among the project opponents. Senior Attorney Aruna Prabhala on Wednesday said the group is still reviewing the new greenhouse gas mitigation proposal.

“We are very interested to see what the project proponent has proposed to address one of the most significant impacts of the development,” she said.

Christina Benz of the Napa Sierra Club referred to a video featuring Napa Students for Climate Action that says one old oak sequesters more carbon dioxide than 5,500 oaks planted over eight years.

"It will take a very long time to make up the damage done by this vineyard conversion," Benz said.

Walt Ranch is 2,300 acres located in the mountains between the city of Napa and Lake Berryessa, near the rural community of Circle Oaks. The project involves planting 209 acres of vineyards. A total of 316 acres would be disturbed when roads and other components are included.

The Napa County Board of Supervisors approved the project in 2016. Challenging the decision in Napa County Superior Court were the Center for Biological Diversity, the Living Rivers Council, the Sierra Club, the Circle Oaks County Water District, and the Circle Oaks Homes Association.

Napa County Superior Court in 2018 found in favor of Napa County on an array of issues brought up by opponents. But the 1st District Court of Appeal in 2019 ruled that the greenhouse gas issue must be revisited.

Vineyard development in the mountains away from the Napa Valley floor has become controversial in general. Some say the county should do more to protect trees and water quality. Others say the county already has strict environmental laws in place.

Walt Ranch is perhaps the highest profile case of vineyard development in the mountains. Craig and Kathryn Hall of HALL Wines in St. Helena have pursued the project for close to 15 years. Opponents in packed meetings have held signs saying "No to soil erosion" and "Halt Walt."

Reynolds wrote to the county that the latest greenhouse gas mitigation proposal actually covers a bigger, now-discarded version of the project that would have cut down twice as many trees.

Also, 97% of Walt Ranch burned in the 2017 and 2020 fires. Most of the sequestered carbon that would be released by clearing trees is already in the atmosphere, he wrote.

These factors would justify revising downward the estimate of project greenhouse gas emissions. But Hall Brambletree won't pursue this option. Doing so would expose the new calculations to further scrutiny and legal review, he wrote.

“In addition, the fires have scarred the landscape and we welcome the opportunity to use the Walt Ranch (greenhouse gas) mitigation as an opportunity to help repair it,” Reynolds wrote.

Whether Hall Brambletree has arrived at a solution to the greenhouse gas issue that will diffuse the controversies and allow the vineyards to be planted remains to be seen.


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Killer of Anita Andrews dies in prison
  • Updated

The man responsible for possibly the most notorious murder in Napa’s history has died in prison.

Roy Allan Melanson, 83, died in a Colorado prison in May of 2020, the Napa District Attorney’s Office confirmed this week. They only learned of the death earlier this year when a prosecutor called Colorado authorities to check on him.

Melanson was serving life sentences for two murders, including the 1974 killing of Anita Andrews, who was tending bar at the Fagiani's Cocktail Lounge in downtown Napa.

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Annie Skinner, spokesperson for the Colorado Department of Corrections, on Thursday confirmed the death of Melanson on May 22, 2020. He had been held in the Colorado Territorial Correctional Facility in Cañon City.

The case transfixed Napa and went unsolved for decades until a 2007 DNA test linked Melanson to the crime, a development that generated national headlines. He had no known connection to Napa and had not previously been a suspect, but tests on a cigarette butt found at the crime scene turned up DNA that matched Melanson’s profile in a national database.

Melanson denied ever having visited Napa, but a witness later confirmed he had seen Melanson late in the evening of July 10, 1974, at the bar, before Andrews was stabbed to death. Several witnesses told detectives at the time that they had seen an unknown man sitting at the back of the bar shortly before the killing.

“Roy Melanson was a serial rapist and killer who terrorized women around the country. His crime spree, unfortunately, included the Napa community which was traumatized for 37 years until his identification and prosecution,” said Assistant District Attorney Paul Gero, who successfully prosecuted Melanson in Napa in 2011. “We are gratified to know he was convicted of first-degree murder and never released to re-offend again.”

The killing of Andrews left a lasting mark on Napa. Andrews’ sister, Muriel Fagiani, owned the Main Street bar and kept it locked and vacant for decades while detectives searched for the killer. She and the family sold the building in 2007, but it remained essentially untouched until 2010 when the new owner began renovations for a new restaurant. The iconic Fagiani’s neon sign remained in place until 2015 and the old red tile exterior remained until 2017.

Muriel Fagiani became a fixture in Napa city politics, as a fierce advocate for preserving the old character of downtown. She also kept her sister’s memory alive, pushing to keep the attention of law enforcement on the case despite the passage of decades. She died in 2010 at age 85, less than two months after Melanson was indicted for her sister’s killing.

Melanson, a drifter, has been connected to numerous rapes over the years and at least three other murders: he was convicted in the 1974 killing of Michele Wallace in Colorado, for which he was serving a life sentence when Napa detectives identified him as a suspect in the Andrews killing. He was a strong suspect in the 1988 murders of Pauline Klumpp in Texas and Charlotte Sauerwin in Louisiana.

Retired Judge Ray Guadagni, who presided over Melanson's 2011 trial and who later wrote a book about the case, said the Anita Andrews murder was one of two cases that rocked Napa in just over a decade. The other was the as-yet unsolved abduction and murder of 5-year-old Doreen Heskett in 1963.

"We lost our innocence," he said Thursday.

After the Andrews killing, he said, people started locking their doors and women began being apprehensive being alone at night.

"It brought home that we weren't safe even here in little old Napa," he said. "I think it shook up the town. It scarred us in a way."

Reporter Howard Yune contributed to this report.


Here is a roundup of police and fire reports in Napa County.

Criminal justice
Calistoga City Councilmember Lopez-Ortega, home care operator, charged with elder abuse
  • Updated

Calistoga Vice-Mayor and City Council member Irais Lopez-Ortega, also the operator of two senior care facilities, has been charged with four felony counts of elder abuse by the Napa County District Attorney’s office.

Charges allege that two separate incidents occurred in June and July at Cedars Care Home, a 10-bed assisted living, residential care facility in Calistoga.

Lopez-Ortega has pleaded not guilty to all charges.

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The District Attorney’s Office filed the charges Aug. 9 after investigating complaints by an elderly male resident of Cedars Care, as first reported in the Calistoga Tribune.

Additionally, action is pending to revoke the license of Lopez-Ortega’s L&B Care Home on Foothill Boulevard, another assisted living facility, according to the state's Department of Social Services. L&B was ordered to close on Aug. 6, and the department appointed an outside entity to run operations until the six residents can be relocated.

In July, responding to a complaint, the department inspected Cedars Care regarding an allegation that facility staff physically abused a resident in their care.

According to a complaint investigation report dated Sept. 9, video evidence from incidents in June and July reveal a staff member grabbing and pushing a resident, causing them to fall. Video also shows two staff members grabbing the resident by the arm and shirt and dragging them in the direction of a bedroom.

A second recorded incident shows a staff member pulling the resident away from the dining room table, resulting in another fall. The Department also obtained photo evidence of multiple bruises on the resident’s body.

The department issued an immediate civil penalty of $500, and additional civil penalties are under review.

After the department presented its findings, Cedars Care agreed to elder abuse prevention training from an outside vendor, according to the report.

Lopez-Ortega could not be reached for comment on Thursday.

Cedar’s Care was licensed in 1999. In 2013, Lopez-Ortega was cited by state regulators for running an unlicensed residential care facility for seniors, L&B, as reported in The Weekly Calistogan. That facility was licensed in 2017.

Lopez-Ortega was appointed to a vacant seat on the city council in February 2013 and has served on the council since then. The council unanimously voted to appoint Lopez-Ortega to the position of vice-mayor last December.

Mayor Chris Canning said Thursday that the current matter is not related to the city of Calistoga or in Lopez-Ortega’s role as a city council member. If convicted, however, she would not be allowed to serve.

A hearing will take place on Oct. 29 in Napa Superior Court.


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US sets the stage for COVID booster shots for millions
  • Updated

The U.S. vaccination drive against COVID-19 stood on the verge of a major new phase as government advisers Thursday recommended booster doses of Pfizer's vaccine for millions of older or otherwise vulnerable Americans — despite doubts the extra shots will do much to slow the pandemic.

Advisers to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said boosters should be offered to people 65 and older, nursing home residents and those ages 50 to 64 who have risky underlying health problems. The extra dose would be given once they are at least six months past their last Pfizer shot.

Deciding who else might get one was far tougher. While there is little evidence that younger people are in danger of waning immunity, the panel offered the option of a booster for those ages 18 to 49 who have chronic health problems and want one.

The advisers refused to go further and open boosters to otherwise healthy front-line health care workers who aren't at risk of severe illness but want to avoid even a mild infection.

“We might as well just say give it to everyone 18 and older. We have a very effective vaccine and it’s like saying, ‘It’s not working.’ It is working," said Dr. Pablo Sanchez of Ohio State University, who helped block the broadest booster option.

Still, getting the unvaccinated their first shots remains the top priority, and the panel wrestled with whether the booster debate was distracting from that goal.

All three of the COVID-19 vaccines used in the U.S. are still highly protective against severe illness, hospitalization and death, even amid the spread of the extra-contagious delta variant. But only about 182 million Americans are fully vaccinated, or just 55% of the population.

“We can give boosters to people, but that’s not really the answer to this pandemic,” said Dr. Helen Keipp Talbot of Vanderbilt University. “Hospitals are full because people are not vaccinated. We are declining care to people who deserve care because we are full of unvaccinated COVID-positive patients.”

Thursday's decision represented a dramatic scaling back of the Biden administration plan announced last month to dispense boosters to nearly everyone to shore up their protection. Late Wednesday, the Food and Drug Administration, like the CDC panel, signed off on Pfizer boosters for a much narrower slice of the population than the White House envisioned.

It is up to the CDC to set final U.S. policy on who qualifies for the extra shot. A decision from the agency was expected later Thursday, but the CDC usually follows its advisers' recommendations.

The booster plan marks an important shift in the nation's vaccination drive. Britain and Israel are already giving a third round of shots over strong objections from the World Health Organization that poor countries don't have enough for their initial doses.

CDC Director Dr. Rochelle Walensky opened Thursday's meeting by stressing that vaccinating the unvaccinated remains the top goal “here in America and around the world.”

Walensky acknowledged that the data on who really needs a booster right away “are not perfect.” “Yet collectively they form a picture for us,” she said, "and they are what we have in this moment to make a decision about the next stage in this pandemic.”

The CDC panel stressed that its recommendations will be changed if new evidence shows more people need a booster.

The CDC advisers expressed concern over the millions of Americans who received Moderna or Johnson & Johnson shots early in the vaccine rollout. The government still hasn’t considered boosters for those brands and has no data on whether it is safe or effective to mix-and-match and give those people a Pfizer shot.

“I just don’t understand how later this afternoon we can say to people 65 and older, ‘You’re at risk for severe illness and death, but only half of you can protect yourselves right now,’” said Dr. Sarah Long of Drexel University.

In other news:

  • New York Health Commissioner Howard Zucker, who was a leading defender of former Gov. Andrew Cuomo's response to the COVID-19 pandemic, has submitted his resignation, Gov. Kathy Hochul said Thursday. Hochul thanked Zucker for his service and said he has agreed to stay on until the state names a new commissioner.
  • A Florida school district has received cash from President Joe Biden’s administration to make up for state pay cuts imposed over a board’s vote for a student anti-coronavirus mask mandate. Alachua County school Superintendent Carlee Simon said in a news release Thursday the district has received $148,000 through a U.S. Department of Education program.
  • A 12-year-old boy has gone to court in the Netherlands to get permission to receive a COVID-19 vaccine so he can visit his grandmother who is battling lung cancer, according to a written court ruling published Thursday.