Napa County has lost about nine square miles of open space since voters 30 years ago passed Measure J to protect the region’s famed wine country from being bulldozed for development.
Make that “only” nine square miles. The nine-county Bay Area as a whole lost 175 square miles of greenfield during that period, according to the Metropolitan Transportation Commission’s Vital Signs report.
Much of those nine square miles are in the American Canyon and airport industrial area, with patches amid Napa Valley farmland. City-centered growth has been the rule. The Greenbelt Alliance has called Napa County a leader in protecting open space.
Local resident Carol Poole, who fought for Measure J in 1990, likes the initiative’s track record.
“I think we have protected agricultural land in the county,” the former St. Helena planning director said recently.
Real estate broker Randy Gularte, who had doubts about Measure J in 1990, sees an unintended downside. Measure J and similar voter-approved growth measures have reduced flexibility to locate housing and pushed out lower-income residents, he said.
“Is that a good thing?” he said. “I don’t think so. We are not providing housing for all.”
On its 30th anniversary, Measure J has long since morphed into Measure P to extend the sunset date. The idea remains the same — only voters should have the power to redesignate agricultural land for development.
Yet experience shows that exceptions are possible. That raises the question of whether Measure J is as bulletproof an open space guardian as advertised.
After a generation, the initiative has become an institution. Time has revealed the strengths and potential limits of Measure J.
The birth of Measure J
Napa County since 1968 has had an agricultural preserve to protect Napa Valley farmland. Until 1990, the Board of Supervisors could change or even dissolve the preserve whenever it saw fit.
A group of citizens in 1990 launched Measure J to make voters the bulwark of agriculture and open space protection. Poole served on the pro-Measure J committee.
“I think at the time we had some people on the Board of Supervisors who were really looking for more growth in the county,” Poole recalled.
Measure J proponents could look to Solano County for a model. That adjacent county had already taken rural growth decisions out of the hands of politicians.
Developers in Solano County in the early 1980s proposed creating a new city of Manzanita between Vacaville and Winters. In response, Solano County voters in 1984 passed an orderly growth measure saying most new homes and businesses should be funneled into existing cities, unless voters approved an exception.
Measure J built on that Solano County predecessor. It sought to protect all land designated by the county’s general plan for agriculture — from Napa Valley vineyards to hilly grazing lands — by putting voters in charge of redesignations for development.
Proponents and opponents argued their points during the 1990 campaign.
Housing pressures will become enormous in coming years, proponent and vintner Volker Eisele said during a forum. The county Board of Supervisors could unleash growth any time it chose.
“The Napa Valley is too valuable an asset to be endangered every Tuesday morning,” he said, referring to the Board of Supervisor’s meeting day.
During that 1990 forum, Lex McCorvey of the opposing Napa County Alliance was having none of it. Measure J was a no-change measure that “strips property owner rights and might encourage more annexations.”
Opponents ran a newspaper ad saying Measure J had “a loophole you can drive a city through” — cities could still annex farmland for development. Also, Measure J would drive up housing prices and burden taxpayers with lawsuits, the ad claimed.
On Nov. 6, 1990, the voters spoke. Measure J passed by a landslide, garnering about 63% of the vote.
“What it spells is a new era in terms of preserving agriculture and keeping faith with the general public,” said Paul Battisti, one of two county supervisors to endorse Measure J.
In 2008, Measure J became Measure P, which voters passed by 62% to extend the orderly growth law’s sunset date from 2020 to 2058.
Power to the voters
Since 1990, voters have dealt with 15 ballot requests under Measure J to redesignate farmland for other uses. Seven passed and eight failed.
Among the winners were outdoor dining at Bistro Don Giovanni in 1994, Stanly Lane pumpkin patch in 1996, development of farm labor camps in 2002, Lake Berryessa boat storage expansion in 2002 and opening existing dining at Chardonnay golf course to the public in 2012.
But an attempt to develop 1,173 acres in hills near the city of Napa with 1,700 homes failed in 1996. In 2004 alone, failures included attempts to expand Pometta’s Deli in Oakville and the Pope Valley market and to allow camping and other uses at Napa Sea Ranch in the Carneros region.
Board of Supervisors chairperson Diane Dillon in 1996 wasn’t a supervisor, but rather helped lead the opposition to that proposed 1,700-home community in the rural hills. Voters rejected the so-called Suscol Creek project by a margin topping 80%.
“It was a resounding voice of the voters that said, ‘We don’t want that type of development in Napa County,’” Dillon said.
No one has proposed a rural development of that magnitude since then, Dillon said. She thinks Measure J discourages would-be developers of agricultural land from pursuing big ideas.
County Supervisor Brad Wagenknecht, a Measure J supporter in 1990 long before he was elected to the Board of Supervisors, said the law has been a good protector of open space.
Voters have generally been sympathetic to people who have long been good stewards to their land and want to do something. But they see through those who come from the outside to make a quick dollar, he said.
He hears from people all the time who want to come and do what they think would be great things for Napa Valley, Wagenknecht said. He recalled talking to a group from China that extolled the benefits of building new resorts in the local open space hills.
“You can sometimes talk politicians into doing those things,” Wagenknecht said. “But it’s hard to talk the average citizen into seeing that’s a value.”
Exceptions to the Measure J
Measure J’s successor, Measure P, states that certain agricultural land use policies “shall not be amended unless such amendment is approved by vote of the people.”
That seems unambiguous. But California election law says a board of supervisors when presented with a qualifying initiative petition has a choice — pass the initiative into law or place it on the ballot.
Those two legal crosscurrents came to a head in Napa County in 2018 with the case of Blakeley Construction.
The Blakeleys’ construction company had been improperly located on agriculturally zoned land near Calistoga since 1962. When neighbors complained, the Blakeleys were faced with either closing or seeking voter approval under Measure J/P.
They gathered 3,792 signatures, enough to qualify a measure. They went to the county Board of Supervisors, which is the elected body that places measures on the ballot.
The Board of Supervisors, then as now, included Wagenknecht and Dillon. In 2018, they saw the Blakeley Construction matter in different ways.
Dillon asked the Board to adopt the petition without going to a vote of the people. She said a Measure J advertisement in 1990 emphasized having voters decide whether farms could be bulldozed for housing, industry or shopping centers.
“That’s not what’s being proposed here,” Dillon said.
Dillon saw the Blakeley case as recognizing a decades-old business, as opposed to digging up farmland for something new.
Wagenknecht disagreed with her reasoning. He wanted the Blakeley matter on the ballot, not because he opposed the Blakeleys, but because he wanted to avoid setting a precedent.
The Board of Supervisors adopted the Blakeley’s petition and a Measure J matter for the first time didn’t go to a vote of the people.
A question is whether the Blakeley case illustrates a Measure J loophole. Here’s a scenario: developers of a proposed, large resort in the rural county gather enough signatures for a ballot measure. A future, pro-growth Board of Supervisors then simply approves the petition.
Dillon recently pondered if Measure J will really protect the county from a pro-growth Board of Supervisors. She answered in the affirmative. Supervisors will know they won’t remain elected for long if they keep a controversial growth case from voters, she said.
“The facts and circumstances of Blakeley, they are so unusual and so unlikely to be duplicated somewhere else,” she said.
Poole doesn’t think Measure J is watered down by that state election law.
“I think if it was a very big loophole, we would have seen a lot more of it happening,” Poole said. “I just think there were special circumstances with the Blakeley case.”
The housing conundrum
The biggest flashpoint for Measure J in coming years might involve the state’s housing crisis. Measure J in combination with voter-approved city growth lines limits the amount of land available for homes.
Gularte said Measure J is too blunt an instrument. The Board of Supervisors might be better suited than voters in deciding whether a particular piece of land is bad for agriculture and good for housing.
Growth-control measures have limited the supply of housing and the demand is high, Gularte said. That results in high housing prices.
“That’s the unintended consequence of what we’ve done,” he said.
Zillow reports the typical home value in Napa County is $711,000 and predicts further increases. Zumper reports the average rent for a two-bedroom apartment is $2,250 a month.
Wagenknecht has a different view on Measure J’s role in all of this.
“I think Napa is conservative with housing,” he said. “Unless you want to fill (the valley) wide open, you’re not going to make enough housing to make it so the price drops. The amount of housing that works in the valley is pretty finite.”
He pointed to Silicon Valley, which was farmland in the 1960s and today is mostly developed. Wagenknecht said that area has housing all over and prices are higher than in Napa County.
Still, Napa County and Measure J must reckon with the state’s power to assign counties mandates to build a certain amount of housing.
Someday, Napa County might find itself without enough residential-zoned unincorporated land to meet state mandates. If that happens, Measure J allows the Board of Supervisors to redesignate agricultural land for housing without a ballot measure.
Wagenknecht said the county will do its best working with the cities and other partners to deal with local housing needs without developing farmland.
Poole said Measure J backers in 1990 didn’t foresee all of the changes coming over the next 30 years. Among them are the degree of winery growth, greater tourism impacts and lack of affordable housing for those working in the wine and agricultural industries.
Much has changed since backers tried successfully to give voters a bigger voice in land use decisions. One thing that hasn’t is how Poole and Wagenknecht view Measure J.
“I think it was a visionary piece of citizen governance,” Wagenknecht said.
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