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If developers want to cut down trees to plant vineyards in Napa County, they’ll have to offset the lost forestland by funding local projects and programs that reduce carbon emissions.

That’s the upshot of a plan to reduce greenhouse gas emissions in the county’s unincorporated areas the county Planning Commission unanimously approved Wednesday. It will go before the Board of Supervisors for a vote in late March.

The plan’s goal is to reduce emissions by 2020 to a level 15 percent below the level measured in 2005. In Napa County, state government measures that will increase fuel efficiency in vehicles and other devices and boost renewable-energy use are expected to account for 70 percent of the county’s reduction.

The remaining 30 percent will come from 35 actions the county plans to take to improve its transit and bikeway networks, encourage carpooling, promote dense, mixed-use developments and require developers to offset their projects’ carbon emissions.

The most significant is the offset program, which will account for 14 percent of the total reduction. Steve Lederer, the director of the county’s Department of Environmental Management, said he envisions it as a bank in which vineyard and commercial developers could pay in and fund local projects or programs that reduce emissions.

For every proposed development, be it a vineyard or a townhome, developers would have to complete a checklist to evaluate the project’s emissions, and then identify ways to reduce those emissions by 38 percent, factoring in state and county measures already in place that apply to the project. Paying into the offset program would be an effective way to accomplish that, Lederer said.

That could mean paying for the installation of renewable-energy generators, planting vegetation, setting up ride-share programs, among a bevy of other possibilities. The plan creates an opportunity to develop the offset program, and Lederer said grants are available to subsidize its creation.

More importantly, Planning Director Hillary Gitelman said, the offset program would discourage developers from cutting down forestland because they would be responsible for paying to mitigate the loss.

The plan makes developing forestland more expensive because forests are able to capture a higher amount of carbon emissions than grass land or other natural terrain in the county. Gitelman said that would push development away from the forests.

“It is not going to stop vineyard development,” Gitelman said. “It is a net cost to the applicant.”

At Wednesday’s meeting, Gitelman highlighted this part of the plan to answer criticism from an environmental group, which said the plan doesn’t analyze the environmental impacts of deforestation and fails to adequately address the loss of forestland.

Chris Malan, manager of Earth Defense for the Environment Now, told commissioners that the plan should be adopted, but said the offset program is inadequate to replace lost forestland. She also said more details are needed to ensure the program is a publicly transparent process. Gitelman agreed.

“Our best hedge against climate warming is protecting our natural resources,” Malan said. “If you’re losing a forest, you should replace it with a forest.”

John Stephens, also a member of EDEN, was sharper in his criticism of the plan.

“The climate action plan as it stands now is merely an accounting practice,” Stephens said. “Our need is for a greener world, not a wine-stained one.”

Anne Steinhauer of the Napa Valley Vintners expressed concerns that the checklist needed to be refined to ensure it could be easily used. She said her association wants to be certain that it won’t require developers to hire another consultant just to handle the checklist.

“Let’s do this in such a way that it is not a burden on the economic basis of this county,” Steinhauer said.

Steinhauer also said credits should be given to vineyardists who have implemented environmentally sustainable programs or practices since 2005, such as Napa Green. Those credits would be counted in offsetting emissions from new developments the vineyards may want to build.

The commissioners agreed, and directed county planning staff to include this provision in the plan. In voting to approve the plan, the commissioners noted that it will be changed as it is implemented, but cited an urgency to get it in place.

“What resonates with me is, ‘We have to have a plan,’” Commissioner Michael Basayne said. “I do believe this is a pioneering plan. There’s a lot more work that has to be done.”

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