Bremer Family Winery received an after-the-fact stream setback exception from Napa County for two footbridges, low rock walls and other structures that have been in place for years.
The Deer Park-area winery has been embroiled in various code violations cases involving both the winery and the creation of a vineyard. But only the stream setback aspect went before the county Planning Commission on Wednesday.
Commissioners granted approval by a 3-2 vote for two bridges, a restroom, decorative walls, a concrete pad, an agricultural storage barn and a 150-square-foot building addition that are within the stream setback.
Commissioners Dave Whitmer, Jeri Hansen and Andrew Mazotti voted “yes.”
“I hope no one – and I mean no one – construes the action that’s taken today as a message to the community that compliance with county codes and policies is optional, that no one cares about that,” Whitmer said. “That’s absolutely not the case.”
Commissioners Anne Cottrell and Joelle Gallagher voted “no,” though both said they didn’t favor removing the structures within the setback. Other issues troubled them.
John and Laura Bremer bought the winery in the mountains northeast of St. Helena in 2002. Their effort to create a 30-acre vineyard by hauling in dirt and placing it behind rock walls drew violation notices from the county and state in 2016 and 2017 – but that issue didn’t go before the Planning Commission.
The county in 2017 took the Bremers to court over alleged violations involving the winery. The two parties in February reached a settlement that among other things set visitor numbers and ended tastings in the wine caves – issues not before the Planning Commission.
Part of the settlement agreement addressed structures near the winery within the stream setback. The settlement required the Bremers to try to legalize the structures. That’s the request that went before the Planning Commission.
“I see the scope of our action being very limited,” Whitmer said.
Consultant David Gilbreth spoke on behalf of the Bremers. The Bremers did such things as improve pre-existing bridges and low rock walls within the setbacks. The structures don’t affect the stream, he said.
“It is in fact pristine and beautiful,” Gilbreth said.
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Deer Park resident Herman Froeb was among the speakers urging the commission not to grant the exemption. He listed a number of perceived problems with Bremer Family Winery.
“Postpone any approval until you see progress on all of their violations,” Froeb said.
Angwin resident Mike Hackett said that, unlike the Bremers’ hired consultants, he represented the public trust.
“They are using public trust space to sell wine,” Hackett said. “Are we going to penalize them or are we going to reward them? I think it’s very important you set a precedent for future violators.”
Mazotti asked what would happen if the commission denied the request. That raised the prospect of the structures having to be removed.
There’s a portion of a building protruding into the stream setback. It would be hard to lop off a quarter of the barrel storage area, county Planning Manager Brian Bordona said.
Cottrell said that development exists in the setback, regardless of how it got there. She noted that an earlier proposal included a stream enhancement plan dropped from the most recent staff report.
“I think in this situation where we have a lot of community skepticism about the applicant’s ability to be a good steward of the land, that was a key component for me,” Cottrell said.
The Bremers will make stream habitat improvements, but in connection with a code violation involving a vineyard, not the stream setback exception. Gilbreth mentioned also doing voluntary stream enhancements.
Gallagher expressed concerned that the Bremers’ request was entangled with the lawsuit settlement that didn’t contemplate Planning Commission denial.
It seemed to be a foregone conclusion that the Planning Commission would grant approval, she said.
Bremer Family Winery is located at 975 Deer Park Road. The stream setback is 45 feet to 65 feet, varying with topography and slope at any one point. The Planning Commission had postponed the Bremer hearing from Sept. 18.