Proposed winery

Hall Wines of St. Helena is preparing to move forward with a 356-acre new vineyard project near the Circle Oaks community off Highway 121/Monticello Road, east of the city of Napa, but community and environmental opposition figures to be stiff.

Almost 10 years after first purchasing the 2,300-acre Walt Ranch property, Hall’s plans reached a significant milestone last month with the release of a lengthy environmental impact report documenting the project’s effects in that rural, undeveloped swath of eastern Napa County.

Plans to remove dozens of acres of trees, use 213.5-acre-feet (one acre-foot is 326,000 gallons) of groundwater annually and build four new reservoirs, together with blasting and grading, has already drawn concern and opposition from Circle Oaks residents.

The Napa County Planning Commission is set to take up the project on a limited basis during its meeting Wednesday, when it considers a request to extend the comment period so residents and other groups can weigh in on the project’s potential impacts, which the environmental report will have to address subsequently.

Hall Wines President Mike Reynolds wrote in an email Friday that he was anticipating the public discussion of the project, which has been in planning stages and environmental review since 2006. Hall bought the property in 2005.

Hall expects to plant mostly cabernet sauvignon on the property, and perhaps some Bordeaux varietals, Reynolds wrote. The project site would be broken up into 65 vineyard blocks,

“We focus on making wines from some of the best vineyard sites throughout Napa, including Howell Mountain, Diamond Mountain, Mt. Veeder and others,” Reynolds wrote. “We think that this site has the potential to rival those locations.”

But residents of Circle Oaks, a 179-home community that sits near the proposed project site, haven’t shared the wine company’s optimism.

In comments on the environmental report posted to on homeowners association’s website, the residents list a litany of potential negative effects on residents. They includes dust, noise and traffic during the multi-year construction period, road damage, erosion and runoff from the project impacting adjacent Milliken and Capell creeks, increased fire hazard, groundwater usage, and loss of wildlife habitat.

The community’s water district asserts it hasn’t been involved in the project’s environmental review or planning process, and the analysis of water usage doesn’t take into consideration the proximity of the residential wells serving Circle Oaks.

Jack MacDonald, general manager of the water district, wrote to county planning staff that one well Hall proposes to use is within 1,800 feet of 16 wells providing one third of his community’s water, and 3,400 feet from the main well that supplies the rest.

The homeowners association calculates that the project would consume 57 million gallons of water annually for irrigation purposes, compared to the 36 million gallons of community consumption occurring already.

On the planned tree removal, which involves 12 percent of the total site, the environmental report contends that the effects the project on trees and native grassland can be mitigated through avoiding some areas, preserving others, and replanting elsewhere on the property.

To the Circle Oaks home owners association, that defies logic. “This statement confounds the mind,” the comments say. “Is the county confident that destroying 28,616 trees is an acceptable impact on the environment and animal habitat?”

The environmental report identifies the project as having a potentially significant impact on stocks of Black Oak, Blue Oak, Valley Oak and native grasslands, but through a mitigation plan those can be reduced to less than significant.

The document states that 4.45 acres of prime native grassland could be impacted, but by avoiding 3.3 acres, preserving 8.65 acres elsewhere on the property in perpetuity, and replanting 2.3 acres, the effect would be negligible. Ultimately, 1.15 acres would be lost, according to the environmental report.

Another 38.55 acres of Black Oak trees could be damaged, which amounts to 12.08 percent of the total acreage of such trees on the property. The environmental report calls for planting new oaks and placing 71.6 acres under permanent protection.

Of the Blue Oak trees on the property, 3.6 acres would be avoided and 2.6 acres would be removed, but the two-to-one preservation ratio would be maintained. Another 5.2 acres would be put under permanent protection.

Of the Valley Oak trees, the environmental report calls for preserving all 30.8 acres on the project site as necessary habitat for a species of turtle found in wetlands on the property. A minimum of 60 percent of the tree canopy has to be preserved, according to the environmental report.

Reynolds wrote that he believes the project is ready for public scrutiny and the next phase of its permitting process.

“We began this project in 2006 and is a result of years of research and numerous studies to evaluate the properties’ full potential and its ability to host a vineyard,” Reynolds wrote. “We look forward to discussing our project with the community.”

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