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Hitting the trail (copy)

An educational sign posted along the Napa Valley Vine Trail.

Napa County has approved a model agreement to indemnify farmers who grant easements for the Napa Valley Vine Trail, a move needed to keep building the trail through the agricultural heart of Napa Valley.

In the short-term, the move should help build a 9-mile segment of Vine Trail between St. Helena and Calistoga. The $9.5-million project would fall apart without easements from 11 private property owners, forcing forfeiture of an already awarded, $6.1 million state grant.

Now, the non-profit Napa Valley Vine Trail Coalition can use the model agreement to try to secure the voluntary easements.

“I believe we are on the runway and ready to take off, if this goes through,” Vine Trail Coalition founder Chuck McMinn said before Tuesday’s county Board of Supervisors vote.

The model agreement has longer-term implications as well. McMinn said it can also be used to obtain voluntary easements on farmland that will be needed when the proposed Yountville-to-St. Helena Vine Trail segment moves forward.

Completing what the Vine Trail Coalition says will be a first-class biking, walking and running trail hinges on co-existing with Napa Valley’s world-famous vineyards.

“I think the challenge we learned is, there’s no other trail like this that has the proximity of agriculture and the potential liability,” county Supervisor Alfredo Pedroza said.

The Vine Trail is to run for 47 miles from Vallejo to Calistoga, providing a 10-foot-wide paved path. In some areas where the trail is to go alongside Highway 29 or the Napa Valley Wine Train tracks, the right-of-way isn’t wide enough and easements are needed from adjacent landowners.

But it’s difficult to entice farmers to grant easements if they fear they could be sued for Vine Trail injuries. The model agreement is something the coalition can shop to landowners as a solution.

The Napa County Farm Bureau approved the model easement agreement, the report stated.

However, attorney Sigrid Waggener submitted a letter to the county on behalf of Ehlers Estate, which owns vineyards and a winery north of St. Helena. The Vine Trail Coalition in 2017 unsuccessfully sought an easement from Ehlers Estate for the St. Helena-to-Calistoga segment. McMinn said this easement isn’t needed for the latest, planned Vine Trail route.

Still, Ehlers Estate sees a flaw with the model easement agreement—it allows building a paved bike-and-pedestrian path on private land inside the county’s agricultural preserve. Such a move under voter-approved Measure P requires a vote of the people, Waggener wrote to the county.

“The pedestrian and biking uses demonstrably conflict with and would hamper ongoing agricultural activities on agricultural preserve lands,” she wrote.

Napa County said in a 2015 analysis that the Vine Trail is consistent with the county general plan and wouldn’t keep agriculture from being the predominate land use.

County and Vine Trail Coalition officials have said that the county will hold the easements. The county can allow uses that a private property owner could not under agricultural preserve zoning.

Under the model agreement, the county agrees to defend and indemnify landowners against lawsuits related to design, maintenance and condition of the Vine Trail in the easements. Indemnification would not cover a landowner’s active negligence or malicious or willful misconduct, a county report said.

Landowners could engage in all lawful agricultural operations. They could protect trail users with temporary trail closures on the easements. They could request fencing to separate farming operations from trail users, the report said.

Also, the county will pay $75,000 annually adjusted for inflation for 30 years to the Vine Trail Coalition to buy additional insurance for the county, coalition and easement grantors. This insurance will cover activities including the normal operation of farm equipment and pesticide applications.

Public Works Director Steven Lederer told supervisors that on this particular day they weren’t being asked to approve any particular easement or the Vine Trail route.

“I actually encourage the Vine Trail Coalition to come back to this Board in a reasonably short period of time to talk about the route,” Lederer said. “Because obviously if they propose something the Board is not happy with, that would need to be dealt with.”

Supervisor Diane Dillon agreed this should happen, adding that the route is a concern to her Upvalley constituents and to those who will want to use the Vine Trail.

Dillon also delved into the details of the insurance situation. She asked what the Vine Trail Coalition would do if insurance costs in future years rise far above the county’s $75,000 annual inflation-adjusted contribution.

“The fundamental issue here is the cost of the insurance will vary depending on the potential future losses or injuries on the trail,” County Counsel Jeffrey Brax said. “The folks in the best position to avoid and minimize those losses are the property owners themselves.”

Limits on the county’s participation provide an incentive for the Vine Trail Coalition and property owners to take practical, reasonable steps to limit the losses and avoid driving up insurance costs, he said.

Supervisor Brad Wagenknecht said the possibility of rising insurance costs is one reason why the county is arranging to pay a set amount to the Vine Trail Coalition to make the purchase.

“If the trail needs to be closed because the cost of insurance, the cost of liability out there is too high, we wanted the Vine Trail to make that decision,” he said. “We didn’t want to be in that position down the line.”

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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.