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Wine industry

By a 3-2 vote, Napa County agrees Bremer Winery barn can stay

From the Napa Valley Wine Insider Digest: Dec. 11, 2020 series
Napa County Administration Building

The Napa County Administration Building 

Bremer Family Winery found a bright spot in its long tussle with the county over what’s legal on the Deer Park property — it can keep a masonry barn and a bathroom built within a stream setback.

In an appeals hearing on Dec. 8, the county Board of Supervisors agreed to overturn a Planning Commission decision and issue conservation regulation exceptions for the two structures. It will take a final vote on Feb. 2.

“These people have really, really tried and they have made mistakes and they know it,” said attorney David Gilbreth on behalf of the Bremers. “We hope that you will view it as good people coming in and trying to resolve these issues.”

Some residents viewed the case differently.

“We are mandated to live by the rule of law,” Angwin resident Mike Hackett told supervisors. “The rule of law does not allow people to surreptitiously or purposely build within the stream setback.”

Bremer Family Winery has loomed large in the county’s efforts to rein in winery rule-breakers. The county sued the winery in 2017 over a host of alleged infractions ranging from too many visitors to building code violations. The parties settled in 2019, with the Bremers paying the county $271,000 for legal costs.

Against that backdrop, the Board of Supervisors on Dec. 8 agreed the barn can stay, but not unanimously.

The Bremers built the barn in 2013 without building permits and the required conservation regulations exception for being next to a stream. The barn was on the site of a previous, smaller structure, a county report said.

Attorney Doug Straus on behalf of the Bremers acknowledged the Bremers should have obtained permits to build the barn. But, he said, they disclosed the issue as part of the county’s code compliance amnesty program to try to resolve the violations.

Removing the masonry barn would damage the stream zone area, said biological consultant Geoff Monk on behalf of the Bremers. He talked of protecting the roots of oaks that are important for the creek habitat. On the other hand, Monk said, the barn isn’t hurting the creek.

“That channel is beautiful right now,” Monk said. “Even though there were modifications to it decades ago, they are well-healed right now.”

The Board of Supervisors in a 3-2 vote allowed the barn to remain. Supervisors Ryan Gregory, Alfredo Pedroza and Belia Ramos voted “yes” and Supervisors Diane Dillon and Brad Wagenknecht voted “no.”

“I think taking it out does more damage to this creek that a lot of people seemed concerned about,” Gregory said.

Dillon said she believes the barn could be removed without damaging the nearby creek.

“I’m very concerned we are sending a message that, ‘Hey, it’s all OK.’ It’s more than the message. There are other places (outside the stream setback) to build the barn,” Dillon said.

The restrooms proved an easier issue and won unanimous Board of Supervisors backing to remain.

Napa County required the Americans With Disabilities Act restrooms and issued a building permit in 2013. The county conceded it failed to require the stream setback exception.

“The restrooms, I have a hard time seeing those have to move,” Wagenknecht said. “They were done with permits.”

Last summer, the Planning Commission viewed the matter differently. Commissioners saw that the stream hadn’t been depicted on the building permit site plan submitted by the Bremers. They reasoned county staff may not have known the restrooms would be within the stream setback.

Straus told supervisors that county officials have since acknowledged they knowingly approved the restrooms within the stream setback. He defended the location, saying the restrooms need to be near other improvements and the septic system.

Planning, Building and Environmental Services Director David Morrison told supervisors that staff erred in 2013 by not requiring a conservation regulations exception. With changes to the department structure, that is not something that would happen today, he said.

John and Laura Bremer bought the winery at 975 Deer Park Road in 2002. Family friend Robert Arns told commissioners how the Bremers married in 1984 and worked in the nursery and landscaping business with a dream of owning a winery in Napa.

He also told of recent misfortunes to hit the Bremers, including health challenges and the loss of their home in the recent Glass Fire.

“I implore you not to kick these people when they’re down,” Arns said. “They’ve spent so much money on this property to make it better.”

John Bremer made a brief statement to supervisors using Zoom.

“I wanted to let you know that Laura and I did the best we could to follow the rules and regulations of Napa County,” he said. “I want to sincerely apologize to where we erred. Thank you.”

William McKinnon of Water Audit California said Napa County, by upholding the Planning Commission decision and requiring the Bremers to remove the structures, could say that enough is enough.

“It shouldn’t have happened in the first place,” he told supervisors. “Now the only question is whether it makes any difference or not to Napa.”

Pedroza said he views the Bremers’ request as caught up in the county’s effort to change the code compliance culture, not a sign of how he might vote on such matters in the future.

The county’s stated goal is to move toward stricter enforcement. As part of the transition, it allowed wineries that disclosed violations by March 29, 2019 — as the Bremers did with the barn and restroom — to try to correct them without facing penalties.

WATCH NOW: NBA PLAYERS NO LONGER ALLOWED TO GO TO BARS AND CLUBS

According to a memo obtained by CNN, NBA players and staff will not be allowed to go to bars and clubs. Players and coaches will be prohibited from going to public gyms, spas, and live entertainment venues also. While on the road, players will be able to eat outside of their hotel if the restaurant is approved by the NBA. Violations of the new guidelines will result in "fines, suspensions, adjustment or loss of draft choices, and/or game forfeiture”. Players could also be asked to quarantine and have a pay adjustment for any games that they miss. The 2020-2021 season is due to begin on December 22. Teams will play in their own arenas without an audience and also travel to other areas for games

SEE NAPA’S MOST EXPENSIVE HOME SOLD IN APRIL

Barry Eberling's memorable 2020 Napa Valley Register stories

Napa Valley Register reporter Barry Eberling share his most memorable stories of 2020.

You can reach Barry Eberling at 256-2253 or beberling@napanews.com.

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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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