The long-running debate over how to best protect Napa County’s rural woodlands and watersheds was rejoined 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.
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 early 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. He also 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.
“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.”
As of 5 p.m., shortly before Register deadlines, supervisors had not voted on the watershed ordinance, following more than 60 public comments that stretched more than four hours into mid-afternoon. The board was scheduled to reconvene at 6:15 p.m.
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.
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 degrees – 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.
Three previous meetings each drew dozens of speakers in debates that failed to produce a middle ground. As supervisors met Tuesday to decide the fate of an ordinance to protect trees and water quality, the battle lines remained as stark as ever.
Supervisors were to vote on raising a 60 percent tree canopy retention minimum in municipal reservoir watersheds to 70 percent, and extending that requirement to all incorporated areas. The board also debated a potential development ban on most areas with slopes of 30 percent or more, and whether projects should have to replace cut-down forests at a 2-1 or 3-1 ratio.
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, a Green Party member who ran for both Congress and the American Canyon City Council last year.
“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 Carneros-based 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 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 reduced 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.”
As the board went into recess early Tuesday evening, supervisors were slated to discuss a package that would set a 70 percent minimum for tree retention minimum in watershed areas but not the entire unincorporated county. The proposal also would normally require cut-down woodlands to be replaced at a 3-to-1 ratio, but applicants could reduce that level to 2-to-1 if they provide a public benefit in exchange – an exception Gregory said could include such things as granting conservation easements around trails to protect larger tracts of land.
No version of the ordinance appeared likely to win unqualified support from all those involved. But Supervisor Brad Wagenknecht called for the board to agree to some form of change on Tuesday while leaving open a path to additional research – including a watershed study the county is jointly pursuing with the city of Napa to better understand the state of lands surrounding Lake Hennessey, the city’s main local reservoir.
“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 decision in either direction appeared certain 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.