Napa Valley Vine Trail gap

A bicyclist travels south on Soscol Avenue in Napa between Vallejo and Clinton streets in February 2015, near a gap three-fifths of a mile long in the Napa Valley Vine Trail.

Liability concerns are threatening the dream of building a Vine Trail that allows bikers and pedestrians to traverse the entire length of scenic, world-famous Napa Valley wine country.

Building the next, planned nine-mile segment linking St. Helena and Calistoga requires easements from farmers along about a mile-long section of Highway 29. Napa County is to hold these easements over private property.

Farmers providing easements want protection against being sued by trail users who get hurt. The Napa Valley Vine Trail Coalition and the county have yet to agree on a way for this to happen, with the county concerned about taking on too much liability risk.

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

Meanwhile, the clock is ticking to secure easements in time to meet deadlines to keep a $6.1 million grant for the $9.2 million St. Helena-to-Calistoga segment. Vine Trail officials said the liability issue needs to be resolved over the next few months.

Napa County Board of Supervisors chairman Ryan Gregory said there are some sticking points that the parties are trying to overcome.

“We want to help,” said Gregory, who is a biking enthusiast. “We just have to mitigate our exposure.”

One issue is the county is being asked to indemnify private property owners for active negligence and intentional acts, Gregory said. For example, a property owner might decide to spray on a high-wind day or might intentionally hurt a Vine Trail user.

County insurance won’t cover such cases. A traumatic brain injury lawsuit could cost the county millions of dollars, he said.

“We’re willing to take on a reasonable amount of liability,” Gregory said, adding the county is exploring whether to buy an additional insurance policy.

The Napa Valley Vine Trail is to extend 47 miles from Vallejo to Calistoga. An existing segment extends more than 11 miles from Kennedy Park in the city of Napa into Yountville.

Automatic sensors indicate the already-built sections of the Vine Trail are popular. Vine Trail Coalition Executive Director Philip Sales said about 350,000 people use the trail annually. Interviews with about 2,000 users indicate that 70 percent are locals, not tourists.

Most of these existing sections are in the city of Napa. One rural stretch between Napa and Yountville runs past vineyards, but is separated from them by Solano Avenue.

Some future sections of the Vine Trail are to be closer to vineyards. That has raised questions about how well the trail and agriculture will mix, with skeptics airing concerns at a 2015 Board of Supervisors meeting. Some farmers worried about such things as being able to spray vines and operate heavy equipment near a trail.

The planned St. Helena-to-Calistoga segment is bringing these issues to the fore. In some cases, the Highway 29 right-of-way is too narrow to squeeze in the Vine Trail and easements are needed from the adjacent property owners to allow part of the 10-foot-wide asphalt path on their land.

Sales said the Vine Trail Coalition doesn’t want to see vineyards removed to make room for trail pavement. Rather, vineyard owners could cross into the easement to turn around tractors at the end of vine rows.

Ten of 11 property owners have agreed to grant the needed easements, Sales said. That hinges on the liability issue being resolved.

Napa County government is to 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.

But the county in October 2017 informed the Napa Valley Vine Trail Coalition it had concerns about indemnification language of a model easement agreement from 2009. The county and coalition have since tried to resolve the matter, Sales said.

“We’d like to lock this down so we have the easements in hand,” Sales said. “So we have a path forward to build this.”

Napa Valley Transportation Authority Executive Director Kate Miller said the deadline to meet requirements for the $6.1 million grant to build the St. Helena-to-Calistoga segment is June. The NVTA could in May seek an extension from the California Transportation Commission into 2021.

It wouldn’t be the first time. The competitive grant awarded in 2015 had a 2017 expiration date that was extended into 2019 after right-of-way issues arose.

Sales said a 2021 deadline wouldn’t change the urgency to resolve the liability matter. Without the right of way secured, work can’t go forward on environmental studies and other aspects of the project that must be completed to secure the grant. Environmental studies could take 18 months.

More is at stake than the $6.1 million grant. Failing to deliver on the St. Helena-to-Calistoga Vine Trail segment could hurt the chances of securing future grants to build future Vine Trail sections.

“It wouldn’t bode well if we gave the money back, but we may not have a choice,” Miller said.

Another planned section of the Vine Trail between Yountville and St. Helena is to use the Napa Valley Wine Train right-of-way. Still, easements on private property will be required at some places.

“If we can’t resolve this, we’re up to the possibility of losing that section as well,” 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.