Supervisor Diane Dillon and long-time local farmer Cio Perez have different thoughts on how Napa County should handle such controversial issues as wine country growth and preserving Napa Valley’s quality of life.
Most of all, they disagree over who should be casting county Board of Supervisors votes on such matters. Dillon wants a fifth term as the 3rd District supervisor representing the Upvalley and Perez is her lone challenger in the June 5 election.
Both have long family histories in the area. Dillon’s ancestors came to Napa County in the pioneer days of the mid-1800s. The Perez family came to the valley to farm in 1935.
Dillon is an attorney who participated in such local growth battles as opposing a mid-1990s proposal for hundreds of homes in the hills near the city of Napa. Perez has regularly spoken out on growth issues as a representative for Napa County Farm Bureau.
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When Dillon talks about the county, she often mentions how incidents that happened years ago relate to today. She depicts herself as a voice of experience and stability for a county government that has seen leadership changes, both at the Board level and in the county administrator’s office.
“There’s a lot of institutional knowledge that we’ve lost,” she said.
Perez’s family owns 35 acres with vineyards. He said the Board of Supervisors is moving away from the idea of saving rural lands for farming by allowing marketing events at rural wineries that should be held in the cities. He wants a farmer’s voice on the Board.
Dillon and Perez both recently sat down to address the same questions in separate interviews.
Napa at ‘Last Light’?
Author James Conaway recently released “Napa At Last Light, ” his third book in a Napa trilogy. It paints a picture of a valley endangered by touristy winery success and a drive for profits at the expense of farming and the environment.
Is Conaway a prophet or misguided?
“I don’t believe he’s a prophet,” said Dillon, who appears only briefly in the book. “But neither do I believe he’s misguided.”
Some people assume he’s a nonfiction writer, like someone who writes a history book about the invasion of Normandy. The misstatements of some basic facts in the book indicate to her that Conaway has written a story, Dillon said.
“Is it a mostly factual, correct story?” Dillon said. “Yeah. But it’s really colored by the folks with whom he spoke. The people whom he focuses on in the book are not a cross section of the community.”
Dillon stressed context. Napa is on the edge of a metropolitan area and has a fabulous climate and natural beauty. Yet, she said, think how much it has been protected.
“Am I happy with how much building we see going on?” Dillon said. “I am concerned about that. I think that we need to have really good discussions about whether it’s time to put some new limitations on things. I’m pretty convinced it is time, but the question is what those limitations should be, what they should look like.”
Perez also has read Conaway’s book. He doesn’t appear in it, though Napa County Farm Bureau is mentioned.
“I’m not sure he’s overly pessimistic, because at the end, he still feels that we as a county have a choice,” Perez said.
Conaway has visited the valley over enough years to have seen changes that everyone should be concerned about, Perez said.
Napa County has laws protecting agriculture. For Perez, part of the problem is that the Board of Supervisors – Dillon included—approved a reworded definition of agriculture in the 2008 general plan.
The revised 2008 general plan definition included “related marketing, sales and other accessory uses” at wineries. The previous definition had mentioned wine sales, tours, tastings and educational activities, but didn’t use the word “marketing.”
For Perez, including “marketing” in the definition of agriculture invites more hospitality activities.
“I think that’s one of the errors we’ve made as a county,” Perez said. “Effectively, it’s opened it up to include things which should not have been included for winery activities and other businesses as well.”
Perez wants to readdress the definition of agriculture by revising this part of the general plan.
Napa is at a crossroads, Perez said. The county has to be careful about killing the goose that’s laying the golden egg. One question is whether decisions will be made about quality of life or about money, he said.
Too many wineries?
Napa County has close to 500 wineries. That raises the question of when enough is enough and whether Napa anywhere near that point.
Perez said the county tried to address the issue in 2015 when it formed the Agricultural Protection Advisory Committee (APAC). Supervisors appointed representatives from the wine industry, farming sector, environmental community and community groups to a committee to look at growth issues. Perez sat on APAC.
“I was extremely disappointed that we weren’t able to do more,” Perez said.
The committee was weighted to be influenced by the wine industry, he said. Also, any committee recommendations to the Board of Supervisors had to have better than two-thirds support.
APAC could have yielded a better understanding of grape production compared to the processing capacity of wineries. It could have done more exploring which areas of the county are appropriate for new wineries, he said
“It’s a little bit more complicated than just saying there are enough wineries,” Perez said. “There are still individuals out there, the entrepreneurs, who are still looking to develop their own facility. The real issue is the fruit source. I don’t think it’s a good idea for the county to be permitting capacity when the fruits are unavailable.”
Dillon said that when the county adopted food-and-wine pairing rules in 2010, supervisors weren’t interested in having restaurants in wineries.
“I’m very concerned that there should not be restaurants,” Dillon said. “Some of what I see at a few places looks like a restaurant at a winery.”
The Winery Definition Ordinance of 1990 was put in place so Napa County wouldn’t be ruined by its own success, she said.
“I don’t think it has been,” Dillon said. “But I think we have to be ever-vigilant. It’s very clear we’re at one of those points where we need to examine what’s going on and determine what if anything the next steps should be.”
APAC was the Board of Supervisor’s attempt in 2015 to do just that, she said. But, she said, APAC didn’t work out as she had hoped, not as well as a community groundwater group that led to such things as revised rules for new wells in the hills and mountains.
“We’ve had success sometimes with community committees and sometimes not,” Dillon said.
Napa County, like the rest of the Bay Area, faces an affordable housing challenge. The average price for a county home is more than $600,000.
One way to bring housing prices down is to build more homes. But that raises the question of whether enough homes can ever be built in local cities to satisfy demand without paving over parts of the agricultural preserve that is the linchpin of the wine industry.
Perez said local cities and towns might have to look at a bit higher densities, perhaps multi-story structures such as apartments and condominiums.
“It’s not just Napa, it’s the whole state,” Perez said. “It’s just a popular state for people to live in.”
Dillon also talked of building up as opposed to out in certain areas.
“Before we start paving over our ag preserve or ag watershed lands, I think we really need to think about, are we really maxed out?” Dillon said. “Or are there new and different ways we could be creating housing?”
For example, Dillon had wanted to see housing five to seven stories tall at the Napa Pipe site near the city of Napa, though housing at that height looks unlikely to happen. The site along the Napa River is near a business park.
“That’s the kind of place we could demonstrate how that could work to create a lot more housing in a smaller space,” Dillon said.
Sending land use decisions to voters
Napa County under 1990’s Measure J and its successor, Measure P, sought to make voters the guardians of agricultural. Measure P states that only voters can change agricultural land-use designations.
But state election law, in apparent contradiction, says a board of supervisors can either place a citizens’ initiative on the ballot or adopt it outright. In March, the Board for the first time since the measure passed that it had not sent the matter to voters to decide.
By a 3-2 vote – with Dillon’s ‘yes’ vote—the Board adopted a citizens’ initiative allowing Blakeley Construction to remain on agricultural land near Calistoga. The business has been there for more than 50 years, but was illegal and had been told by the county to leave.
Dillon said the Blakeley Measure P attempt is an exceptional case. Among other things, it doesn’t redesignate agricultural land, but allows an existing business to stay on agricultural land.
But if three supervisors rather than the voters can make a Measure P decision, is Measure P really as strong a protector of agriculture as advertised?
Voters have options should a Board of Supervisors ever adopt a Measure P initiative that allows a subdivision or new commercial endeavor in an agricultural area, Dillon said. They can try to overturn the decision on a referendum. They can try to recall the supervisors.
“I think the facts speak for themselves,” said Dillon, who worked on the 1990 campaign to pass Measure J. “It has been the secure guardian.”
Under Measure P, the Board of Supervisors cannot propose and adopt a change to agricultural designations by itself. It can adopt only a citizens’ initiative that has signatures from at least 10 percent of registered voters.
Dillon said Measure J puts a higher burden on an applicant who must go out and collect signatures.
Perez said he knows the Blakeleys and they are an integral part of the community in the north county. Still, he said, the Blakeley initiative should have gone to a vote of the people, as Measure P was designed to do.
“Maybe with the steps the supervisors have taken with the Blakeley issue, it does open up the question of the intent of Measure P and how it might be side-stepped, which in my opinion shouldn’t happen,” Perez said.
He was surprised that something like this could be passed without going to a vote of the people, Perez said.
“I think that should be a concern for all of us who voted on Measure P,” Perez said.