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Homeowners resist Napa Valley Balloons' plan for new Yountville launch site
Recreation

Homeowners resist Napa Valley Balloons' plan for new Yountville launch site

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A hot-air balloon hovers over Yountville, rising above the Domaine Chandon winery.

A company that has flown tourists over the Napa Valley in hot-air balloons for 40 years is facing turbulence – not from hostile weather but from neighbors seeking to stop it from launching flights from the south end of Yountville.

Napa Valley Balloons (NVB) is facing resistance from residents of Yountville and rural areas south of town, who have complained its hoped-for lift-off spot near St. Joan of Arc Catholic Church will inflict early-morning noise from the fans and heaters used to inflate the lighter-than-air craft before each flight.

Foes of the launch plan – some of whom have banded together as the NAPA (Neighbors Against Privacy Abuse) Coalition – have urged Yountville not to enable more flights they say often fly dangerously close to the ground and intrude into the privacy of their homes.

But the balloon company argues that a new launch site is a must for its survival, after California’s banishment of the carrier from the Vintner’s Golf Club deprived it of a place to launch flights year-round. Since losing its right to fly from the golf course, the company has been forced to shuttle guests from Yountville to the city of Sonoma or else use an alternate launching point in the unincorporated county, where a permit limits it to 50 days a year.

“Without a Yountville launch site, it has become exceedingly difficult for NVB and its Napa Valley legacy to survive,” the company wrote in a presentation to the Town Council earlier this month.

Despite that petition, Napa Valley Balloons’ attempt to win a launch permit ran aground when the Town Council postponed a scheduled vote on May 5.

Councilmembers delayed their decision after receiving a letter earlier in the day from the San Diego-based lawyer Andrew Rauch, who suggested he would sue on behalf of opponents if Yountville approves the balloon site. Rauch declared the balloon operation would violate flight safety, noise, privacy and zoning laws, and attacked Napa Valley Balloons’ safety record, citing three accidents between 2009 and 2016 that involved the company.

“Unfortunately, the proposal as currently presented is defective on multiple grounds,” Rauch wrote the council, representing the NAPA Coalition.

Napa Valley Balloons, which carries about 13,000 passengers annually, was forced to seek a new launch site after the state Department of Veterans Affairs terminated the company’s rights to use the Vintner’s golf club in 2019.

The decision followed a state audit that sharply criticized CalVet leases in and near the Veterans Home of California at Yountville that auditors said failed to return enough revenue to serve residents of the retirement community. In addition, Napa Valley Balloons gained the town’s permission to launch from the golf course in 2009, but CalVet leaders did not learn of the deal until seven years later, according to the report by state Auditor Elaine Howle.

Napa Valley Balloons eventually settled on a field within a 16-acre vineyard near St. Joan of Arc church at 6406 Washington St. where balloon passengers would be shuttled from the Vintage golf course parking lot. The field is the only open space within town limits where the company can launch balloons to take advantage of prevailing winds, which come from the north-northwest and usually push flights southeast to the city of Napa, the company said in its statement to the council.

But those plans aroused the ire of several residents, both those living as near as 100 feet from the field and others with homes along the flight path south of Yountville. In emails to town staff, opponents spoke of disturbed sleep from the noisy inflation of the towering balloon envelopes as early as 5:45 a.m., as well as flights close to the ground that invaded privacy, spooked horses and took guests dangerously close to treetops and power lines.

“We have stood on our back deck on many occasions and we could hear the passengers in the gondola talking, because the balloon was extremely close to our house,” wrote Spiro and Marie Dalageorgas, who live a mile south of Yountville. “... As far as we are concerned, these incidents have infringed on our privacy and the quiet enjoyment of our home.

“It is our opinion that the balloons should not, under any circumstances, be allowed to launch anywhere in the city limits of Yountville or anywhere outside the city limits. The city of Yountville and the surrounding areas are heavily populated – too populated for balloons to be launching.”

Following the lead of nearby residents, Rauch, the attorney, attacked the balloon-launch plan on several counts. He argued that flights are not an allowed use for the property’s residential zoning, and that the fans and air heaters used to inflate balloons would violate town ordinances against excessive noise before 8 a.m.

More seriously, Rauch added, the Napa Valley Balloons site lacks a large enough buffer zone to protect passengers or those living in nearby homes and apartments, including the Rancho de Napa mobile home park just north. Federal aviation rules require at least a 2,000-foot radius for aircraft to take off and land without endangering residential areas, he wrote.

Given only a few hours to process the letter of opposition, the Yountville council put off a decision to June 2. Like all public meetings since March, the meeting, scheduled to begin at 3 p.m., will be conducted as a Zoom videoconference due to social distancing rules during the coronavirus pandemic.

Town Council meetings can be viewed on Xfinity cable public-access Channel 28 or online at townofyountville.com. Public comments can be emailed before the meeting to publiccomment@yville.com.

You can reach Howard Yune at 707-256-2214 or hyune@napanews.com

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Public Safety Reporter

Howard Yune covers public safety for the Napa Valley Register. He has been a reporter and photographer for the Register since 2011, and previously wrote for the Marysville Appeal-Democrat, Anaheim Bulletin and Coos Bay (Oregon) World.

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