Pinot noir grapes

Proposed Napa County wineries that would produce no more than 30,000 gallons annually and meet other criteria may end up with a slightly shorter pathway to approval.

County officials are proposing to create a faster track for what it considers to be small wineries. A key feature is a public hearing before the county Zoning Administrator rather than the Planning Commission.

This new pathway, if it becomes reality, could save an applicant four weeks to eight weeks, Planning, Building and Environmental Services Director David Morrison said. He and his staff are crafting a law for consideration by the Planning Commission and Board of Supervisors.

But Kathy Felch of Napa Vision 2050 said streamlining may come with a price. The grassroots group has been in the thick of county growth debates.

“We advocate for more transparency in the government, more public involvement in decision-making,” Felch said.

She is concerned about having a Zoning Administrator hearing rather than Planning Commission hearing.

“It’s not as visible,” Felch said. “We should be moving in the direction of encouraging participating in government, rather than discouraging it.”

The Zoning Administrator is Morrison or another planning staff member designated by him and meetings are usually held in a conference room. The atmosphere is often informal, as compared to the strict structure of Planning Commission meetings.

Issues going currently to the Zoning Administrator range from turning a garage into second dwelling to allowing a reduction in lot size for a second building. The administrator has held seven hearings this year.

Morrison said small winery applicants would still have to follow such steps as filing applications and doing environmental work. Neighbors would still be notified of hearings. The Zoning Administrator’s decisions could be appealed to the Board of Supervisors.

“Same process,” he said.

Having the Zoning Administrator handle the small wineries that meet certain criteria would free up the Planning Commission to focus on the more complicated issues, Morrison said.

The streamlined method as it now stands would apply to proposed wineries producing 30,000 gallons or less annually that also meet the following criteria:

- At least 85 percent of the wine must be made from vineyards owned or leased by the winery and within the same American Viticultural Area, where applicable.

- Total building and cave area cannot exceed 12,000 square feet.

- No more than 20 roundtrips can be generated daily the winery, with the exception of marketing events.

- No more than 10 marketing events can be held annually, with no more than 30 people attending. The exception is one event can be a charitable event with up to 100 people attending.

- The winery must be located at least 1,000 feet from a city or town.

Proposed wineries producing 30,000 gallons or less that want to vary from these standards would have to go before the Planning Commission, as they do now.

The idea of streamlining the approval process for small wineries is mentioned in the 2008 general plan. The county’s Agricultural Protection Advisory Committee in 2015 endorsed the concept by a 15-2 vote.

In October 2015, the Planning Commission endorsed the concept. Commissioner Terry Scott said the fast-track could help small farmers.

“It becomes almost a war of attrition as to when do people run out of patience or out of money,” Scott said.

In March 2016, the Board of Supervisors directed staff to pursue the small winery streamlining idea.

Now details are emerging. The county has yet to announce dates for public hearings on the still-evolving streamlining law.

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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.