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Appeals court backs Napa County in watershed initiative dispute
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Appeals court backs Napa County in watershed initiative dispute

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Oak removal permit program in Watershed Initiative

California’s First District Court of Appeal has issued a decision making it harder for backers of a controversial watershed and oak protection initiative to place their measure before voters. The three-judge panel in a Tuesday decision agreed with the county that the initiative petition had a fatal, if technical, flaw. Backers might have to once again go to shopping centers and gather a few thousand signatures if they want to move forward.

“I believe our group is stronger than ever,” Angwin resident and initiative backer Mike Hackett said on Thursday. “I think we’re determined to put a measure on the ballot about the protection of our water resources and trees.”

Backers are considering options, Hackett said. Possibilities include appealing the Court of Appeal decision to the California Supreme Court and circulating an amended initiative petition.

Whatever route they take, Hackett said the goal is to have a measure on the June 2018 ballot. Napa County has no elections before then.

“We will not be deterred,” he said.

The Water, Forest and Oak Woodland Protection Measure wades into an ongoing community debate about allowing hillside vineyards and other large developments amid forests in the county’s mountains. It would strengthen stream setback laws, limit the cutting of oaks and, in some cases, require county-issued permits to cut oaks.

Napa Valley Vintners, Napa County Farm Bureau, Winegrowers of Napa County and Napa Valley Grapegrowers oppose it. The groups said that the county already has strong watershed protection laws.

Volunteers gathered 6,298 signatures last year, more than the 3,791 needed to qualify the measure for the November 2016 ballot. But Napa County voided the petition on a technicality.

The 18-page initiative petition circulated by proponents referenced an appendix in the 2010 Napa County Voluntary Oak Woodland Management Plan. But it didn’t include a copy of the appendix.

Whether it should have or not is the crux of the legal dispute. State law requires initiative petitions to include a full text of the proposed law, so people thinking of signing can make an informed decision.

The county said the initiative would make mandatory certain provisions of the voluntary oak management plan. Initiative proponents said the measure simply references the provisions to provide minimum standards for oak removal permits.

In July 2016, Napa County Superior Court Judge Diane Price agreed with the county. The state Court of Appeal upheld Price’s decision.

“We conclude that the trial court correctly held the proposed initiative does not comply with the full text requirement,” Associate Justice Stuart Pollak wrote on behalf of the three-judge panel.

The contention that the initiative doesn’t enact what are now voluntary oak management practices is belied by measure, he wrote.

“In order for a holder of five or more acres to obtain a permit to remove oaks in the area to which the measure would apply, it would be necessary to comply with management practices that are not at present mandatory,” Pollak wrote.

Various groups ranging from the California Native Plant Society to the California Wildlife Foundation filed briefs with the court in favor of the initiative proponents. They feared a county victory would set a precedent making it more difficult to qualify initiatives for the ballot.

Hackett said people believe oaks need to be protected, and expressed thanks for support he said came from statewide. People believe that the right to vote on such issues is important to democracy, he said.

“We will turn this poison into medicine,” he said.

Among the groups filing briefs in favor of the county were Winegrowers of Napa County, the League of California Cities and California State Association of Counties.

“If accepted, the appellant’s position would be unworkable and would only cause confusion among election officials statewide,” said the brief filed by the League of California Cities and California State Association of Counties.

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Napa County Reporter

Barry Eberling covers Napa County government, transportation, the environment and general assignments. He has worked for the Napa Valley Register since fall 2014 and previously worked 27 years for the Daily Republic of Fairfield.

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