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Napa Valley Vine Trail

This is the scene along Highway 29 at Ehlers Lane north of St. Helena where a Napa Valley Vine Trail segment is planned.

A planned nine-mile Napa Valley Vine Trail segment between St. Helena and Calistoga appears to be back on track after a photo-finish flirtation with disaster.

The project needs private property easements, such as along public roads where there isn’t enough room in the right-of-way for the trail. The Napa Valley Vine Trail Coalition and Napa County had been unable for months to resolve how the county would offer liability protection to the owners.

Meanwhile, the clock was ticking. Without a quick resolution, the project faced returning a $6.1 million grant.

Now a break-through has emerged.

“We have got an insurance company that’s prepared to insure the property owners,” Vine Trail Coalition Executive Director Philip Sales said on Monday. “The county would be willing to pay for that insurance up to a fixed amount each year.”

As a ballpark figure, he said this could cost the county about $75,000 annually.

“We’re pretty confident at this point that the trail can be built,” Sales said.

The Napa County Board of Supervisors has yet to vote on the proposed deal. That should happen in March, county officials said.

“It’s worked out,” Board chairman Ryan Gregory said on Tuesday.

The Napa Valley Vine Trail is to be a 47-mile-long biking-and-hiking trail from Vallejo to Calistoga. A popular existing segment extends more than 11 miles from Kennedy Park in the city of Napa into Yountville.

St. Helena-to-Calistoga is to be the next major segment. The Napa Valley Vine Trail Coalition and Napa Valley Transportation Authority in 2015 announced that the Metropolitan Transportation Commission had chosen the project to receive a $6.1 million state grant. Construction was to begin in 2017.

At the time, Sales said the new segment would be a crown jewel running through “breathtaking” Napa Valley scenery.

Then came a series of challenges. Controversy arose among some landowners over a proposed trail alignment to avoid a narrow section of Highway 29 between Big Tree Road and Lodi Lane. Critics saw potential conflicts between people walking and biking on the Vine Trail and farming.

The Napa Valley Vine Trail Coalition finally found another trail alignment. A grant extension from the original 2017 expiration date provided more time.

But the liability problem still needed solving. The trail in sections needs to pass on privately owned land near vineyards and owners don’t want to be sued over Vine Trail injuries on their properties.

The county and Vine Trail Coalition since 2017 had been working on how to protect 11 property owners who grant easements. The county was concerned its insurance wouldn’t cover the liability risk under certain scenarios, putting county funds in jeopardy.

Napa County must be the easement holder because recreation trails are not allowed on private land in the agricultural preserve, Sales said. The county is not subject to its zoning ordinance and can make an exception for the easements.

By this year, with the grant expiration date looming in June, the need to resolve the liability situation had become critical. Otherwise, even with another 20-month extension, there would be too little time to complete all of the pre-construction work.

“If we are unable to reach agreement to do so, the easements will not be granted and the Vine Trail will not be built anywhere north of Yountville,” Chuck McMinn of the Vine Trail Coalition told the Board of Supervisors in January. “We will have failed.”

Now, with an agreement between the Coalition and county apparently in hand, the Napa Valley Transportation Authority can seek a final, 20-month extension from the California Transportation Commission for the $6.1 million grant.

That doesn’t necessarily mean smooth sailing ahead. Napa Valley Transportation Authority Executive Director Kate Miller said to actually receive the grant money for construction, the project’s environmental, engineering and design work must be completed by the anticipated, new deadline.

“The larger issue is 20 months from July to complete a lot of the other things,” Miller said.

Sales said the Coalition has been working diligently for almost two years on the environmental and other issues. A lot of pieces are already in place.

“At this point, we don’t see any fatal flaw in what we’re doing,” Sales said.

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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.