Napa County’s unfolding clampdown on winery rule-breakers appears poised to grow tighter, with a deadline possible for violators seeking after-the-fact approvals.
The 2014-15 grand jury and others have asked the county to make certain that its more than 450 wineries follow the rules. The county is also looking at non-winery businesses and homes that violate their county permits.
“What I see before us is that next step in terms of taking compliance to the next level,” county Supervisor Alfredo Pedroza said.
The wine industry has contended that Napa County doesn’t have a Wild West of winery rule-breakers, but rather a few outlaws. Rex Stults of Napa Valley Vintners backed the county’s goal of reining in the offenders.
“We are big compliance champions,” Stults said.
During an Aug. 22 discussion, the Napa County Board of Supervisors found that the difficulties are in the details. Supervisors are to refine their vision on Sept. 12.
Among the topics is setting a deadline for owners of wineries, businesses and residences with violations to submit applications to the county to bring their permits in line with what is actually happening on the ground.
Board of Supervisors Chairwoman Belia Ramos used June 1, 2018 as a hypothetical date. A scofflaw who didn’t apply to the county for permit changes by then and is caught might have to immediately comply with the permit as written.
With such a policy in place, a winery that made too much wine and missed the application deadline would have to cut production back to the permitted level. But supervisors are wary of a to-the-letter approach for all aspects of permits.
Take, for example, a winery that had several dozen more employees than allowed by its permit. If for some reason it failed to file for changes by the deadline, would it have to fire workers?
“I don’t want June 1 to be viewed as pink slip day in Napa because someone has too many employees and they misread or misunderstood their approvals,” Ramos said.
Nor did she necessarily want to automatically tear down illegal buildings.
Pedroza has looked at 20 or so winery permits dating to the 1970s. Some of the older permits are vague in terms of how many visitors and employees a particular winery is allowed, he said.
“Understanding the rules isn’t as clear as I think the general public has made it out to be,” Pedroza said. “I wish it was consistent, I wish it was spelled out in black-and-white, but it’s not. We’re going to have to deal with that going forward.”
Setting a compliance deadline might result in 50 to 100 applications from violators seeking to set things right and holders of vague permits working on clarifications, county officials estimate. That would be in addition to the 65 major applications the county is already handling.
Supervisors will explore hiring temporary planning help to avoid slowing down processing time, especially for the non-violators. A county report said the costs would be borne by the applicants.
Stults came to the microphone during public comments to give a wine industry perspective.
“You guys have certainly done your homework,” Stults told supervisors. “All the things that we were concerned with coming into this, you are concerned with.”
Local resident Yeoryios Apallas has expressed concern that wineries violating their permits have a competitive advantage over those that follow the rules. He urged the county to keep the idea of fines on the table for violators.
“We live in a world-class area,” Apallas said. “And the wine industry recognizes that. By and large, they are responsible and responsive citizens of the community and avoid violations of their use permits. It’s a small part of the community, I believe, that causes angst among our citizens.”
Supervisor Ryan Gregory and Ramos said they want to avoid cases of wineries coming to the county to correct violations while at the same time asking for expansions.
The Board of Supervisors faced such a case on Aug. 15 with Raymond Vineyards winery. The winery sought after-the-fact approvals for several structures and tasting areas and for more employees. It also asked to merge its property with its adjacent Ticen Ranch, create a Highway 29 entrance and open an additional visitors center.
“Some people shouldn’t live together and those are two people who shouldn’t live together, compliance and permitting,” Ramos said, then after a pause laughed at her metaphor.
“Dogs and cats,” Gregory added.
Also under discussion is the county’s previously stated goal of having all wineries self-certify annually that they are following certain parts of their permit, such as wine production limits. The Board of Supervisors has yet to make this idea the law.