Napa County is analyzing a flood of more than 150 letters, as well as dozens of verbal comments at public hearings, on the controversial Walt Ranch watershed vineyard project.
The county stopped taking comments on the Walt Ranch draft environmental report on Nov. 21. The project proposes about 300 acres of vines and 500 acres of total disturbed land in hills between the city of Napa and Lake Berryessa along Highway 121.
Making room for the Walt Ranch vineyards could lead to 28,000 trees being removed. Craig Hall, owner of the Walt Ranch property, wrote that 90 percent of the trees on the 2,300 acres will remain as they are.
Still, the state Department of Fish and Wildlife expressed concerns about the long-term survival of native oaks in Napa County. The department said it’s unclear if protecting 248 acres of Walt Ranch woodlands, reconfiguring vineyards to avoid trees and replacing trees are adequate mitigation steps.
The Mishewal Wappo Tribe of Alexander Valley sent a letter on the project. The tribe gained local publicity when it sought federal recognition, causing county officials to fear that it might seek to build a casino in the county.
Tribal council member Vincent Salsedo wrote that the tribe wants to monitor Walt Ranch with an archaeologist to make certain no Native American cultural resources are damaged. This aboriginal territory belongs to the tribe and was shared only with the Yocha Dehe Wintun Nation, he wrote.
He paraphrased an anonymous quote that only when the last tree has died and the last river has been poisoned and the last fish caught will people realize they cannot eat money.
“The water tables and aquifers are drying up in the Napa Valley due to vineyard use and if we fail to protect that resource at every instance, the above quote will come true sooner,” Salsedo wrote. “If we don’t protect Mother Earth, who will?”
A state Native American Heritage Commission letter doesn’t include the Mishewal Wappo tribe on a list of tribes the agency recommends the county contact about the project.
Circle Oaks is a rural community near to Walt Ranch that uses well water. The community homeowners association and water district sent in several letters expressing concern that Walt Ranch water use could hurt the Circle Oaks supply.
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One letter asks whether the county will require monitoring wells and whether it would halt the project if Circle Oaks supplies are hurt. Circle Oaks has about 500 residents.
As the applicant, Walt Ranch must bear the costs for the environmental impact report. Hall and Mike Reynolds of Walt Ranch wrote that these costs as of August 2014 totaled $3.7 million dating back to 2006.
They noted that the county planning director usually handles erosion control plans for hillside vineyards administratively. In this case, the county held a public hearing to gather environmental impact report comments and plans to hold a second hearing at some point to rule on the project.
These changes appear to be in response to a loud minority opposed to any development, they wrote. Some opponents are trying to generate fear to further their own agendas which are inconsistent with the Napa County general plan, they wrote.
“As a result of these changes to the approval process, we believe the process has been unfairly politicized to the detriment of the project,” Hall and Reynolds said.
As the county processes hundreds of comments, County Supervising Planner Brian Bordona said the timing of what’s to come next should become apparent in early May.
Napa County could issue a final environmental report, which would clear the way for Planning, Building and Environmental Services Director David Morrison to hold a public hearing. Morrison is to rule whether Walt Ranch can go forward.
Or the county could decide it needs to gather more information. If that information is substantial, the county could have to recirculate a section of the draft report for still more comments.
For now, the county needs to wrap up dealing with that vast amount of comments already received between last July and Nov. 21.