As controversies have swirled around new or expanding winery projects in the last few months, the voices calling for a moratorium on such projects have grown louder before the Napa County Planning Commission.
Some neighbors to these projects and some members of the wine industry have loudly protested the impacts they expect to result — higher traffic and increased groundwater usage being two of the focal points of concern.
It culminated in a meeting before the Board of Supervisors and the Planning Commission two weeks ago, with members of both bodies agreeing that staff should work with the wine industry in analyzing the issue before any discussion of policy changes occurs.
To some residents, that wasn’t good enough, especially when the Planning Commission voted the next day to approve another winery project, the Castellucci Winery on Zinfandel Lane, over the protests of neighbors. Soda Canyon residents Bill Hocker and Diane Shepp, among others, have said the county needs to stop processing winery applications altogether until the overarching policy issues are resolved.
A moratorium on winery projects is without precedent in the last two decades. The last time one may have been issued was in the run-up to the hearings on the Winery Definition Ordinance, the landmark county law that’s framed much of the current debate, in 1990, said Jeffrey Redding, a land-use consultant and former director of the county Planning Department.
Redding was uncertain if a moratorium was issued or just discussed, but did know it led to a rush of dozens of new applications from winery owners or developers looking to get in under the old rules. That only exacerbated the problem by overloading staff, Redding said.
“That’s not what the county needs and not what staff needs,” Redding said. “That’s very draconian. I really think a moratorium would be the least desirable outcome.”
Redding said his consulting business has seen an uptick in clients with the continued economic recovery in California and the U.S., and new wineries’ business models call for an increased reliance on tasting room visitation.
Redding worked on a project earlier this month that drew objections for its visitation, as commissioners said its 24,000 gallon annual production didn’t warrant the level of visitation it was seeking. Redding said the winery, Titus Vineyard and Winery, is in a location off Silverado Trail and Deer Park Road that will lead it to compete with other larger wineries nearby.
He said traffic to Titus wouldn’t necessarily be worsened with the greater visitation because it would divert existing traffic to a new location. He and the developers ultimately agreed to lower their visitation numbers.
“We’re a tankful (of gasoline) away from 6 million people,” Redding said. “Napa is an attraction. We want to attract people who are coming to the valley for one reason or another.”
Redding said he believed the course of action the commissioners and supervisors agreed on — more study before making decisions — is the right one.
“I think that’s the right approach,” Redding said. “I think that everyone agrees that traffic is an issue. I don’t think a moratorium is in the offing. A solution is very likely and possible.”
Grapegrower Andy Beckstoffer, a critic of how the county has applied the WDO, said this approach can leave the overall problem festering, but wasn’t sure if a moratorium is the ideal solution.
“I don’t (think) that there needs to be a moratorium,” Beckstoffer said. “Somebody has to get serious about upholding the WDO. It’s clear something has to happen.”
A proposal by the Raymond Winery to double its production from 750,000 gallons to 1.5 million gallons two years ago initially drew the ire of Beckstoffer, who’s a neighbor to the winery on Zinfandel Lane.
The project has been in a state of limbo ever since, and it’s uncertain if it will return to the Planning Commission in June as it was originally scheduled, Beckstoffer said. But it factors into a pattern of winery development along Zinfandel Lane that includes the recent approval of the Castellucci Winery down the street. The county needs to look at the cumulative impact of this development, he said.
“It becomes ‘Industrial’ Lane,” Beckstoffer said. “Some people have to live there. You shouldn’t be adding use permits or winery projects that exacerbate that.”
Beckstoffer, who recently purchased commercial real estate in downtown Napa, also called for merchants of the city of Napa to be included in the discussion. These merchants, many of them tasting room owners, are impacted economically with further winery development Upvalley, he said.
“It is a big conversation,” Beckstoffer said. “There’s been a lot of chatter. It’s time to do something.”
To Planning Commissioner Bob Fiddaman, a moratorium on winery projects is akin to handing the Planning Commission a butcher knife when it really needs a scalpel.
“I’m not crazy about the idea,” Fiddaman said. “We need to take a measured approach. I think a moratorium is over the top.”
Former Planning Commissioner David Graves, who served from 1999 to 2006, said the issue is so deeply rooted with the economic, environmental and general livelihood of the Napa Valley that it won’t be an easy fix.
“Pull a piece of yarn on a sweater and the next thing you know you have a ball of yarn and no sweater,” Graves said. “It’s really complicated. We all need to be sensitive to many of the concerns that were brought up.”