Subscribe for 33¢ / day

Napa County government has a response for the mystery group called Alliance for Responsible Governance: Contrary to your allegations, we satisfy state environmental laws when approving new wineries.

Planning, Building and Environmental Services Director David Morrison authored a seven-page reply to an eight-page letter from the Alliance’s attorneys. He said the group’s concerns about county-approved winery growth are serious and deserve a meaningful, open discussion.

He wants Alliance members to identify themselves and step forward for face-to-face talks. The group has communicated with the county using the law firm Shute, Mihaly & Weinberger.

“Communications through letters and attorneys is not a productive process,” Morrison wrote to the law firm.

Attorney Ellison Folk of Shute, Mihaly & Weinberger declined last week to identify group members to the Napa Valley Register.

“They really want the focus to be on the concerns over the future of Napa Valley,” Folk said.

The Alliance letter said the group supports having sustainable economic growth within the context of agricultural protections embraced by citizens and codified in the county general plan. Members sees this ideal threatened by traffic and other impacts from new wineries and winery expansions.

Morrison in his letter took issue with the idea that Napa County is experiencing runaway winery growth. Rather, he argued that growth is going according to the county’s Board of Supervisors-approved 2008 General Plan.

The general plan foresaw 225 new wineries being built between 2005 and 2030, Morrison wrote. To date, the county has approved 107 new wineries. That translates to 47.6 percent of the estimated total with 46.7 percent of the general plan life having elapsed.

In addition, the General Plan estimated that half of the new wineries would produce 50,000 gallons of wine annually or less. Instead, 83 percent of the wineries approved meet this standard, Morrison wrote.

Much of Alliance letter dealt with aspects of the California Environmental Quality Act, or CEQA. The group claimed Napa County has a pattern of approving winery projects without doing legally adequate environmental reviews.

California passed CEQA in 1970. This law requires state and local agencies to identify significant environmental impacts from proposed projects and then avoid or reduce these impacts, if possible.

Sometimes, that means doing bulky environmental impact reports on projects to analyze potential effects on traffic, air pollution, wetlands, animals, fish and other topics. At other times, less extensive studies can satisfy the requirements.

The Alliance letter said the county since 2013 has approved over 90 new wineries and winery expansions. Only twice did it require environmental impact reports, for Yountville Hill winery and the Hall Winery distillery building demolition.

Morrison wrote that the county isn’t as sparing with environmental impact reports as the Alliance suggests. He pointed to reports done for various non-winery projects, such as the Syar expansion, Walt Ranch vineyards, county jail, Napa Pipe and Palmaz heliport.

More importantly, he wrote, how many environmental impact reports the county requires is irrelevant to the quality of environmental review.

From 2006 to 2016, California counties, cities and other agencies completed 112,880 CEQA documents, Morrison wrote. Of these, only 5,014 or 4.4 percent were full-fledged environmental impact reports.

“By (the Alliance’s) logic, one might assume that 96 percent of CEQA documents produced throughout the state of California over this decade have also been inadequate,” Morrison wrote.

Get news headlines sent daily to your inbox

The Alliance said Napa County wineries repeatedly violate the terms of their permits by doing such things as hosting more marketing events than allowed, playing amplified music and holding events late into the night.

“As the grand jury found in 2015, Napa County’s oversight of wineries is almost non-existent, and therefore insufficient to insure compliance with CEQA,” the Alliance wrote.

Morrison wrote that the 2014-15 Grand Jury never used the words “non-existent” or “insufficient.” It recommended the county to do such things as increase the number of wineries audited annually for rules compliance, something the county is working on.

He noted the Grand Jury report said “code enforcement staff is doing a professional job in its audit and compliance function in so far as their limited resources permit.” He noted the county has since increased the number of codes compliance officers from three to six and adopted a new code compliance manual.

“If there are any specific reports of violations, please forward them to my office so that we can promptly and effectively respond,” he told the Alliance.

With both the Alliance and county now having released letters, it’s unclear what happens next. But Morrison’s preference is clear: face-to-face talks with Alliance members.

Board of Supervisors Chairwoman Belia Ramos agreed.

“We need to know who it is,” Ramos said on Tuesday. “We’re not going to have these discussions in a vacuum and it’s not going to be a letter-writing campaign. This certainly deserves its time in an open session where others can participate.”

The Board of Supervisors is to continue a discussion on county code compliance on Sept. 12.


Napa County Reporter

Barry Eberling covers Napa County government, transportation, the environment and general assignments. He was worked for the Napa Valley Register since fall 2014 and previously worked 27 years for the Daily Republic of Fairfield. He is a graduate of UC Sa