The long-running debate over how to best protect Napa County’s rural woodlands and watersheds continued Tuesday before the Board of Supervisors – with compromise still elusive between those calling for stricter curbs to protect water and air quality, and those wary of undermining the valley’s economic backbone of wine grapes.
After 10 hours and more than five dozen public speakers, supervisors seeking that middle course accepted increased requirements for preserving trees and replacing cut-down ones for vineyards and other development in watershed areas, but decided against a complete ban on projects on ground with slopes greater than 30 percent.
The ordinance passed unanimously by the board after 7 p.m. raises the required woodland replacement ratio in watershed zones from 2 to 1 to 3 to 1, although applicants can win the lower ratio by offering a public benefit such as conservation easements around a nature trail. The minimum vegetation canopy area that must be preserved also was raised from 60 to 70 percent in such areas.
Development setbacks will include a 50-foot zone from wetlands, although that buffer may be shortened if recommended by a qualified biologist.
Left untouched was a county policy of allowing development of sites sloped between 30 and 50 percent with a county permit, as the board chose not to remove the permitting process for such properties.
Early in the meeting, Supervisor Belia Ramos expressed her doubt that the ordinance would solve a pressing land-use problem, noting the small number of would-be builders receiving county exemptions to build on slopes greater than 30 percent – five homes, four wineries and zero vineyards since 2004. A complete ban “is trying to fix a problem that we don’t have,” she said.
Reservoirs serving four of the county’s five cities also gained minimum setbacks in the ordinance, which faces a second approval vote by supervisors on April 9. Buffers will extend 500 feet from Kimball and Bell Canyon reservoirs, which respectively serve Calistoga and St. Helena, and 250 feet from Rector Reservoir outside Yountville as well as from the city of Napa’s two local sources, Lake Hennessey and Milliken Reservoir.
The outsize audience led the county to open overflow rooms with video screens for late-arriving spectators, including one space inside the public library. Supervisor Ryan Gregory also announced that parking time limits around the county administration building on Third Street would not be enforced during the meeting.
Three previous meetings had each drawn dozens of speakers in debates that failed to produce a middle ground, and as supervisors returned Tuesday to decide the fate of the watershed protection ordinance, the battle lines remained as stark as ever.
With multi-year drought and wildfires striking at the region in recent years – and – vineyard development creeping out of the nearly fully planted valley floor into uplands closer to local reservoirs – supporters of stronger protections argued that leaders no longer can wait to safeguard reservoirs from runoff and pollutants.
“You have an opportunity to rise to the leadership which this challenge puts before you,” Yeoryios Apallas, owner of Soda Creek Vineyards, told the board earlier Tuesday. “You can create a sustainable Napa Valley and become the world leaders for the wine industry, or you can kick the can down the road and revert to business as usual.
“We cannot afford to kick the can down the road. We as humans and occupants of the valley have a duty to those who come after us, to provide a healthy environment in which to raise our children and grandchildren.”
But other speakers remained firm in attacking the proposal as a threat to the wine industry that has largely defined the Napa Valley for decades and accounted for nearly all its agriculture. One opponent, Chuck Wagner of Caymus Vineyards, pointed to his winery’s push into the Suisun Valley of neighboring Solano County and warned supervisors that excessive land-use rules could drive away other winemakers – and possibly invite the residential development the county has resisted in its Agricultural Preserve for over half a century.
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“Possibly the Napa Valley has peaked and is ready to transform into housing tracts, like the Santa Clara Valley,” said Wagner, who predicted a hard ban on extending vineyards into hill country would only strengthen competing winemaking regions.
“Sloped soils, without a doubt, make the best wines,” he said. “Without a doubt, this regulation will clear the way for other regions to exceed the quality of Napa Valley cabernet. Stopping Napa’s progress opens the way for San Luis Obispo, Solano County and San Benito to surpass the quality of the Napa Valley.”
In the days before the marathon meeting, the Center for Biological Diversity sent out a press release deriding the watershed and tree protection ordinance as “watered-down” and “a fig leaf” and called for a more robust law. Meanwhile, a mailer sent by county resident George Bachich, a member of the Napa Valley Land Steward Alliance, to rural property owners called the ordinance a threat to property rights.
Slowing the loss of tree cover that captures climate-warming carbon dioxide should be paramount to county leaders even at the cost of opposition from the wine industry, argued Jason Kishineff, who ran for both Congress and the American Canyon City Council last year under Green Party affiliation.
“You’re here not just to protect the winery owners but the rest of us,” he told the board. “I’m not asking you to hurt existing wineries, I’m asking you to put a cap on the deforestation that is destroying our planet. … If you allow $50,000 or $100,000 in donations from wineries to sway your opinion so you allow your constituents to be poisoned or contribute to the further destruction of your planet, then you’re not doing your job and you should step down.”
But a Napa Valley winemaker asked county leaders not to sacrifice the future of those in his position, particularly family-run operations on smaller properties.
“I want my daughter to have clean water and clean air, to see the trees I know and was raised with, but I want her to have an economically viable future in this valley,” said Ed Hudson. “When you take it away from us farmers who work in the valley year after year for mostly very little gain by passing ordinances like this, then we leave,” he continued, adding that the likely endgame will be corporations less interested in environmental protection accumulating more vineyards.
“If you want Napa to go in the wrong direction, then yes, you will pass this ordinance.”
Still other rural landowners worried that a county ordinance could threaten their ability to clear brush and undergrowth as protection against future wildfires, despite county assurances of a specific exemption for such activities. The Napa Valley’s history of droughts and drawn-down groundwater makes such prevention essential for safety, said Denise Levine, a county resident who owns about 200 acres near Mount Veeder west of the city of Napa.
“We can’t support all the trees with water we have in these hills,” she told supervisors, describing the loss of woodlands to the wildfires of October 2017. “We need a sustainable forest, a resilient forest, not just trees.”
Though no version of the ordinance appeared likely to support all those involved, Supervisor Brad Wagenknecht called for the board to agree to some form of change on Tuesday while revisiting the rules in a year’s time, to see what further protections may be needed. “I want us to move at least in some manner with what we’ve got today, and then add the science later that we’re going to do for completing this,” he said. “That’s my hope.”
Regardless, any firm decision in either direction appeared likely to prolong the clash rather than settle it, short of a grand bargain between those calling the ordinance too onerous on farming and others considering it too lenient on grapegrowers.
Also possible is the return of the debate to the ballot box, where Napa County voters narrowly defeated the Measure C woodland protection initiative in June 2018. An ordinance that significantly tightens development rules may face a referendum to undo the restrictions, while an ordinance deemed too lenient could lead environmental advocates to fortify it by a new ballot initiative.