Napa County’s latest environmental battle over watershed and tree protections is thorny and complicated.
Grand themes have emerged – battling climate change, protecting drinking water, respecting private property rights, keeping Napa County’s world-famous wine country economy healthy. Finding ways to reconcile these various values is the trick.
The issue returns to the Napa County Planning Commission at 9 a.m. Wednesday in the county administration building, 1195 Third St. Here’s a Q&A look at the situation.
Think of this as a cheat sheet for the draft Napa County Water Quality and Tree Protection Ordinance. Included are comments from the dozens of letters submitted to the county and from speakers during several hours public hearings held so far.
Q What problems need fixing?
This depends on whom you ask. The answers range from grave problems to no apparent problems, with some ground in-between.
Advocates of tougher conservation laws say that Napa County must do its part to combat climate change, a phenomena they say has been scientifically proven. Among other things, that means conserving more trees that can sequester carbon dioxide.
Water quality is another big issue. The cities of Napa, St. Helena, Calistoga and Yountville all depend on reservoirs in local hills. Some citizens – and cities—are concerned that sediments, fertilizers and other materials from vineyards in the mountains could wash into creeks and into reservoirs. Sediments can also impair fish habitat.
Others say that Napa County already has among the toughest conservation laws in the nation, requiring such things as erosion control plans for vineyard development in watersheds. That’s in addition to state standards.
They want the county to gather more data before moving ahead with measures they say could unnecessarily hurt farming and property rights. Scientific information specific to Napa County will reveal what the local problems are, if any, and what solutions are needed, they say.
Q How can both sides invoke science to defend their views?
Some speakers at recent county meetings see a Napa County environmental success story and others see looming, urgent environmental challenges. They debate over whether the science shows that new conservation laws are needed.
“The problem is how you define it,” Planning, Building and Environmental Services Director David Morrison said. “What’s an acceptable level of protection? There’s certainly a debate about whether we need a higher level of (environmental) protection than we’ve had in the past.”
Q Napa County proposes to ban most development on slopes 30 percent or steeper. How steep is that?
The Rector Reservoir spillway east of Yountville is a 33-percent slope, by way of comparison, county officials said.
A 30-percent slope is the type that hiking trails would use switchbacks to climb. Think of an intermediate run at a ski resort.
“Can you walk up it? Yes. Is it easy? No,” Morrison said.
Q How much land in the county has 30-percent slopes?
A total of 170,315 acres, or 34 percent of the county.
Presently, county law for unincorporated areas allows grading or development on slopes greater than 30 percent only with a use permit, with certain exemptions. The reason stated in county law is to minimize risks associated with high erosion potential, unstable soils and combustible vegetation.
The proposed law would remove the use permit option. The remaining exemptions would include making certain home additions, maintaining private access roads and creating firebreaks required by Cal Fire.
In effect, about 34 percent of the county would be off-limits to development of vineyards and structures.
Q What is the 70-percent tree canopy retention idea?
Another idea is to beef up an existing requirement that landowners developing property in municipal reservoir watersheds retain at least 60 percent of the tree canopy.
The proposal is to increase this requirement to 70 percent of the canopy shown in 2016 aerial photos. Also, the county would extend the requirement to all unincorporated areas.
Some say this tree-saving idea doesn’t go far enough, others say it goes too far.
“To think that ‘saving some trees’ by changing the canopy retention from 60% to 70% is enough is to deny that there is a climate crisis,” resident Elaine de Man wrote to the county.
Forests do everything from sequester carbon to decrease erosion and water runoff to remove agricultural pollutants in groundwater, according to the Center for Biological Diversity, which cited various studies. It wants at least 90-percent retention.
George Bachich, who has been involved in past local land use battles as a member of the Napa Valley Land Stewards Alliance, has a different view.
“The requirement to maintain a minimum of 70 percent of the original tree canopy is arbitrary and extreme,” he wrote to the county. “Napa County is not losing its forests and there is no demonstrated need to impose this requirement.”
Napa Valley Grapegrowers in a letter to the county put in a good word for vineyards. Research shows vineyards are not only carbon neutral, but can be climate positive over the medium and long terms, the group wrote.
“A vineyard’s low nitrogen requirements, low water requirements and ability to thrive in drought conditions make it a powerful tool in the toolbox for combating global warming — and the perfect agricultural product for Napa County,” Napa Valley Grapegrowers wrote.
Q What are the proposed tree mitigation changes?
The county presently requires a 2-1 mitigation ratio for oak woodlands lost to development. The property owner must replant or preserve through a conservation easement or deed restriction twice as much oak habitat as is lost.
Now the county is weighing whether to go from 2-1 mitigation to 3-1 mitigation. Also, the mitigation would be not only for oak woodlands, but for other tree canopies. That would include forests with conifers.
The county would prefer that the replacement or preservation take place on the same property. Also, it would prefer that mitigation be on slopes of less than 30 percent and outside of stream and wetland setbacks.
If those conditions cannot be met, the county could allow mitigation on slopes of greater than 30 percent and in stream setbacks. If mitigation cannot be done onsite, the county could allow it offsite in the same watershed with similar habitat.
But resident Jim Wilson doesn’t like the idea of allowing mitigation by preserving trees on slopes greater than 30 percent. He called this “double-dipping,” since these steep areas are already effectively protected from development.
“Preservation needs to take place on developable land outside of already protected steeper slopes and streams and wetland setbacks,” Wilson said.
The local firm PPI Engineering, which does vineyard design and erosion control, questioned whether 3-1 mitigation is necessary on top of the proposed 70-percent tree canopy retention requirement.
Q What is the 40 percent shrub retention idea?
This is similar to the 70-percent tree canopy proposal. The county presently required 40-percent shrub/grassland retention for development in the municipal reservoir watersheds.
The proposal is to extend the 40-percent requirement to the entire unincorporated county, but with a twist—only the shrub retention, not the grassland retention, would be in force outside of municipal reservoir watersheds.
Q What types of new setbacks are proposed?
Napa County has stream setback requirements that vary based on slopes. At the extremes, it has a 35-foot setback for slopes less than one-percent and 150-foot setback for slopes of 60 percent to 70 percent. Goals include protecting water quality and aquatic habitat.
The county originally proposed to remove the requirements for setbacks on slopes steeper than 30 percent, given that separate proposal to ban virtually all development in these areas. But a revision going to the Planning Commission on Wednesday recommends keeping all slope setbacks “out of an abundance of caution.”
A new proposed twist is adding a 35-foot setback for Class III streams. These are small, intermittent streams that don’t support aquatic life, but are headwaters for larger streams. The county also proposes a minimum 50-foot setback for wetlands and minimum 200-foot setback for city reservoirs.
The local Sierra Club prefers a 150-foot setback for wetlands and 500-foot minimum setback for reservoirs. That would further protect the ecosystem’s ability to filter out sediments and pollutants from the local water supply, club members wrote.
“We must do everything we can now to protect this precious water supply, which is increasingly threatened in a warming world,” the club wrote to the county.
Bachich wrote to the county that the proposed Class III stream setbacks would amount to de facto conservation easements without fair compensation. This land grab cannot be justified based on undemonstrated, immeasurably small gains in water quality, he wrote.
Q Is Napa County at a tipping point?
Calistoga area resident George Caloyannidis thinks so. The best science says the Napa River is impaired due to pathogen, nutrients and sediment. The local steelhead trout population over 50 years dropped from 7,000 to 1,000, he said.
The county can’t replace existing vineyards with forests, but it can stop vineyard and mansion development that degrades the watershed, he said.
“We are now at the tipping point,” Caloyannidis told the Planning Commission on Feb. 20.
Vintner Stuart Smith sees a different type of tipping point. He said the county’s conservation regulations are working and the proposed changes are draconian and hostile to grape growers and property owners.
“Only with the passage of time can economists recognize the tipping point that sends an industry into an uncontrolled tailspin,” he told the Planning Commission. “If enacted, will these new regulations be the proverbial straw that breaks the camel’s back? Only time will tell.”
That’s the gulf of viewpoints facing the Planning Commission and Board of Supervisors. At this point, no compromise has emerged that the various parties in the debate would be willing to accept.