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COVID-19 complicates proposed Napa ballot measures about cannabis and watershed protection
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COVID-19 complicates proposed Napa ballot measures about cannabis and watershed protection

Gathering signatures for two proposed Napa County ballot measures – one on rural, commercial cannabis cultivation, the other on watershed protections – is a daunting task amid COVID-19 shutdown orders.

Californians are to shelter-at-home except when engaged in “essential” tasks such as buying food. Yet each measure needs more than 7,000 signatures from registered voters by May 8 to qualify for the Nov. 3 ballot.

Proponents of both measures are asking the Napa County Board of Supervisors to simply place the initiatives on the November ballot. The watershed group on Wednesday announced it had suspended signature-gathering to avoid further spread of the virus.

“We’d like the democratic process to be assisted by the supervisors,” said Mike Hackett, a proponent of the watershed protection initiative. “This is not a demand. This is just a request.”

Supervisors are to discuss the issue when they meet at 2 p.m. Thursday in the county administration building, 1195 Third St. in Napa. People can go to https://bit.ly/2vP56cl to watch.

There are potential complications. Citizens through the initiative process can place items on the ballot without the issues facing scrutiny under the California Environmental Quality Act.

County Executive Officer Minh Tran said that’s not true for the Board of Supervisors. That means Board action to place the proposed measures on the ballot might trigger the need for environmental impact reports or less-detailed documents.

Initiative proponents would in normal times take tables and clipboards to shopping centers and collect signatures outside of stores. Hackett stressed that steps to try to stop the spread of COVID-19 have priority over the proposed watershed measure.

“I don’t want to come across here that this (measure) is more important than life and death because it’s not,” he said. “We hope that at some point in the fall, things will return to normal and the issue of protecting our watersheds and water supplies will still be a viable concern for citizens.”

The proposed Napa County Water Sustainability Initiative of 2020 seeks to further strengthen county watershed protection laws. Proponents say the Board of Supervisors didn’t go far enough when tackling the issue last year.

Among other things, the measure would not allow people to mitigate for cutting down forests by protecting trees on slopes 30 percent or greater. Hackett said this land is already undevelopable.

“You can’t protect what’s already protected,” he said.

The Board of Supervisors during public hearings last year also heard from people who said that existing watershed protection laws go far enough. This group didn’t view trees being cut down to make room for hillside vineyards as being at a crisis point.

Stephanie Honig is representing an unrelated, proposed initiative that would allow commercial cannabis grows in the rural county. Having the Board of Supervisors place the measure on the ballot would save time, money and, most importantly, anxiety, she said.

“If you do this, in no way are you showing support for this measure,” Honig told supervisors at their March 17 meeting. “Rather, you’re showing support for democracy and for public safety.”

Attorney Lance Olson on behalf of Eric Sklar, a member of the Napa Valley Cannabis Association, further elaborated in a letter to the county.

“The current extraordinary and necessary response to the COVID-19 outbreak is hindering the ability of voters to sign ballot measure petitions, thereby hobbling the electorate’s right to exercise the initiative power as guaranteed by the state constitution,” he wrote.

The proposed cannabis measure comes on the heels of Measure J, which backers pulled from the March 3 ballot in hopes that the county supervisors would craft a commercial cannabis cultivation law.

This new measure submitted by Honig would allow one-acre commercial cannabis grows on parcels of at least 10 acres. The Napa Valley floor, the Carneros region and areas visible from Highway 29 and Silverado Trail would be off-limits.

Growers would pay the county an annual tax of 50 cents per square foot of canopy.

Cannabis manufacturing and non-storefront retail would be allowed in unincorporated county industrial areas. These businesses would pay the county a tax of 2.5 percent of gross revenues.

Growing commercial cannabis is illegal in rural Napa County. Discussions at Board of Supervisors have brought up questions such as how cannabis grows might affect the wine country image and the Napa Valley wine brand.

Supervisors in September talked of holding community workshops on cannabis in January. The dates got pushed back to March 25 and 26, only to be delayed again by the recent COVID-19-related shelter-at-home orders issued by the county and state.

Both the proposed watershed and the cannabis ballot measures have the potential to generate ballot box controversy, based on recent history. The big question now is whether they can qualify for the ballot amid COVID-19 restrictions.

Editor’s Note: Because of the health implications of the COVID-19 virus, this article is being made available free to subscribers and non-subscribers alike. If you’d like to join us in supporting the mission of local journalism, please visit napavalleyregister.com/members/join/.

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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