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Napa County gives split decision in Bremer winery stream case
Wine Industry

Napa County gives split decision in Bremer winery stream case

From the Napa Valley Wine Insider Digest: July 17, 2020 series
Bremer Family Winery

Bremer Family Winery has faced controversy over various structures built within the setback of the above-pictured stream.

Another Bremer Family Winery brouhaha, this one over a barn and other structures built too close to a stream, landed in the laps of Napa County planning commissioners with the subtlety of a live grenade.

The Planning Commission on Wednesday decided by separate votes that two structures can stay and two must go. John and Laura Bremer can appeal the decision to the Board of Supervisors, so that might not be the final word.

This more than four-hour hearing proved lively. An opposing attorney said “Objection!” during the Bremer presentation, with Planning Commission chairperson Dave Whitmer responding that he wouldn’t run the hearing like a court of law.

Both sides responded vigorously to perceived personal attacks.

John and Laura Bremer bought the Deer Park-area winery in 2002 and have had several disagreements with the county in recent years. Wednesday’s hearing was the latest chapter.

The question for the day — whether to grant after-the-fact conservation law exceptions for a barn, concrete pad, house addition and restroom built too close to a stream. The county’s setback is 45 feet to 65 feet, depending on slope and topography.

A majority of commissioners decided a 2,200-square-foot barn and associated water tank built in 2013 by the Bremers with neither building permit nor stream setback exception went too far.

“Our county has a reputation of, ‘It’s easier to get forgiveness than permission.’ I just really feel that’s not a reputation we want to have and we need to turn that around,” Commissioner Joelle Gallagher said.

Bremer representatives said the lack of permit resulted from confusion linked to the property’s historic building rights and permits obtained for projects in the mid-2000s. They said the Bremers brought the violation to the county’s attention.

The commission also decided a 100-square-foot restroom built in about 2013 must go. A county report said the Bremers had a building permit and the county inadvertently failed to require the stream setback exception. Still, commissioners noted the application map didn’t depict the stream.

Commissioners decided 150 square feet in house additions built in the 2000s can stay. Again, according to a county report, the Bremers had building permits and county staff mistakenly failed to require the setback exception.

Finally, the commission decided an 800-square-foot concrete pad can stay. It was built before the Bremers bought the winery, with the county unable to find any permits.

In a letter to the Planning Commission, Water Audit California requested that all four structures be removed. It called riparian ways “sacred ground” and said granting setback exceptions after-the-fact is bad precedent.

“As any parent knows, one should not reward bad behavior lest it become a habit,” wrote Grant Reynolds, director of Water Audit California.

Water Audit California has used lawsuits to pry water releases from local reservoirs for fish. The group also sponsored a February water forum to try help the community find less contentious ways of resolving water debates.

Attorney David Gilbreth on behalf of the Bremers said no one had demonstrated scientifically that the structures harmed the stream. Consultants on behalf of the Bremers found the stream to be in good condition.

More issues than the stream setback bubbled up at the meeting.

Gilbreth, worried his clients’ reputations have been harmed, had private investigator Dawn King look into the Bremer case. The former FBI agent worked with former Planning Commissioner Michael Basayne.

King said she reviewed more than 1,000 documents, communications and web materials associated with the Bremer properties to reach her conclusions. She looked at disputes that went beyond the four structures, such as a vineyard project that ran afoul of the San Francisco Bay Area Regional Water Quality Control Board.

“I, quite frankly, did not see any evidence the Bremers flagrantly disregarded rules or laws,” King told commissioners. “Although there were mistakes made – which according to experts I talked to, always happens all the time in projects like these—I found the Bremers were not bad people, did not have ill-intent ....”

Gilbreth said he thought opponents have pounded on the Bremers and at one point mentioned the name of Angwin resident Mike Hackett. Hackett, who attended the hearing, objected to what he thought was a questioning of his motives.

Hackett described the issue as being simple – people need to obtain permits to build and can’t build near the public trust that is the stream, with its fish and aquatic life.

“Am I angry? Yes, I’m very angry,” Hackett told commissioners. “I am hurt, because I’m just doing this for all of us, for the public trust, for our good. That’s it.”

Gilbreth said he was sorry Hackett felt under attack.

“But there’s no place in the rule of law for someone to say that, ‘I own that land that someone else owns, and I am so passionate about it and I am so angry about it that I won’t produce any science whatsoever to support my position that there’s any harm. I will just cloak myself in self-righteousness and say, I’m a good man,’” Gilbreth said.

That prompted Whitmer to ask that the personal comments stop.

The commission previously considered the Bremer stream setback issue on Oct. 16, 2019. It approved in retrospect various structures in the setback, seemingly settling the matter for the Bremers.

Hackett appealed the decision to the county Board of Supervisors. Supervisors on May 5 voted that rock walls and pedestrian bridges could stay, but that the barn, pad, house additions and restroom merited greater scrutiny from the Planning Commission.

All of that set the stage for a Wednesday Planning Commission hearing that proved far more fiery than usual.

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You can reach Barry Eberling at 256-2253 or

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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.

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