A state appellate court ruled Napa County’s 2016 approval of the controversial Walt Ranch vineyard project is lacking in one area—dealing with greenhouse gas emissions.
Walt Ranch is to make up for the loss of 14,000 carbon-sequestering trees by preserving woodlands. But the court questioned whether the woodlands to be preserved as mitigation are in danger of being cut down.
The 1st District Court of Appeal on Monday remanded the case back to Napa County Superior Court on the greenhouse gas matter. It also upheld the lower court’s decision that the county-approved environmental impact report adequately addresses groundwater supplies, rare species protections and other issues.
The Center for Biological Diversity and the Sierra Club, both appellants, welcomed the greenhouse gas emissions ruling.
“This is really an important victory for our climate and forest,” attorney Aruna Prabhala of the Center for Biological Diversity said on Tuesday.
Prabhala called the ruling “a blow to the project.” More must be done before it could go forward, she said.
Walt Ranch opponents weren’t the only ones who found something to praise in the ruling. So did Mike Reynolds, speaking on behalf of Walt Ranch vineyard applicant Hall Brambletree Associates.
“There were 20 arguments challenging the project and the court agreed with Napa County on 19 of the 20,” Reynolds said on Tuesday. “As to the (greenhouse gas) refinements required, we look forward to working with Napa County to resolve this.”
Walt Ranch is 2,300 acres located in the mountains between the city of Napa and Lake Berryessa near the rural community of Circle Oaks. The project involves planting 209 acres of vineyards. A total of 316 acres would be disturbed including roads and other components.
County environmental impact report findings adopted in 2016 call for preserving woodlands to mitigate for trees cut down for the vineyard project. Walt Ranch has black oaks, blue oaks, valley oaks and other types of trees.
Hall Brambletree would use conservation easements to strip the protected land of development rights, though the land would remain private property. But the Center for Biological Diversity doesn’t see preserving another part of the ranch as being adequate mitigation for losing 14,000 carbon-sequestering trees.
“They were saying, ‘We’re going to cut down these trees, but that’s OK because we’re not going to cut down these (other) trees’ ... you have to do something proactively to reduce your GHG emissions,” Prabhala said.
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The 1st District Court of Appeals agreed. It said the Center for Biological Diversity demonstrated that there’s no substantial evidence that the trees to be preserved wouldn’t remain on the property anyway.
“The property itself is undeveloped, but over 40 percent of the property is not developable under local regulations,” the court ruling said.
Craig and Kathryn Hall of HALL Wines in St. Helena are spearheading the Walt Ranch project. In 2008, they proposed creating a 397-acre vineyard within a 509-acre disturbed area.
Napa County began environmental analysis in 2008 and took until 2016 to approve a slimmed-down project. According to the court ruling, the Walt Ranch administrative record exceeds 60,000 pages, the environmental impact report exceeds 5,000 pages and public comments exceed 3,700 pages.
Opponents pointed to Walt Ranch as a prime example of vineyard development moving into mountains and displacing forests and oak woodlands. At a 2014 county public hearing, they held up signs reading “Halt Walt,” “Save Our Water” and “Protect Our Oaks.”
Planning, Building and Environmental Services Director David Morrison in June 2016 granted Walt Ranch an erosion control plan. Opponents appealed to the Board of Supervisors, which in December 2016 approved a 209-acre vineyard and 316-acre disturbed area.
Challenging the decision in Napa County Superior Court were the Center for Biological Diversity, the Living Rivers Council, the Sierra Club, the Circle Oaks County Water District and the Circle Oaks Homes Association. The court on March 8, 2018 ruled in favor of the county, prompting the appeal.
The 1st District Court of Appeal in its 55-page decision issued Monday sided with Napa County on most issues covered in the environmental impact report.
For example, the Center for Biological Diversity said the environmental impact report should have analyzed the potential for estate homes being built on Walt Ranch, as well as vineyards. County law by right would allow 35 homes.
The Center for Biological Diversity argued that water right expansions and road improvements for vineyards would open the door to home development, though Walt Ranch owners hadn’t proposed building homes. The group feared the owners might be trying to piecemeal a larger project.
But the 1st District Court of Appeal said home development isn’t a “reasonably foreseeable consequence” simply because vineyard development makes it a possibility.
“We’re disappointed the court did not agree with us about the other significant issues on the project,” Prabhala said. “But right now we’re focusing on where we did have significant agreement with the court, on the greenhouse gas issue.”