Napa County is contesting a recent Napa County Superior Court ruling that could force the Board of Supervisors to reconsider its controversial 2017 Mountain Peak winery approval in light of the subsequent Atlas fire.
The court says the Atlas fire offers new evidence about wildfire evacuations in the Soda Canyon area that the Board of Supervisors didn’t have when it approved the yet-to-be-built winery. The county has turned to the state First District Court of Appeal to avoid a Mountain Peak repeat.
An agency doesn’t have to revisit approvals made under the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) if new information arises, the county’s March 28 appeal said. Otherwise, approvals could keep being reopened every time opponents find what they claim is new environmental information.
All of this means that the Mountain Peak winery debate will continue, though whether exclusively in the courtroom or also back before the county Board of Supervisors remains to be seen.
The Board of Supervisors approved Mountain Peak winery along Soda Canyon Road in August 2017. Opponents calling themselves the Soda Canyon Group sued in September 2017 to try to overturn the decision. Then the October 2017 Atlas fire burned Soda Canyon.
Opponents in court filings described an “apocalyptic” post-fire scene with burned houses, burned cars and burned animals along the road. They said the fire raises new questions about allowing a new winery with up to 14,500 visitors annually to be constructed in the mountains a few miles northeast of the city of Napa.
“The absolute last thing emergency responders want or need when disaster strikes, particularly a fast-moving wildfire, is more people to deal with who are potentially inebriated and wholly unfamiliar with a treacherous area with poor ingress/egress,” the filings said.
Superior Court Judge Cynthia Smith in a Feb. 21 order granted the Soda Canyon Group’s request to add Atlas fire evidence to the county’s administrative record on Mountain Peak winery. She wrote that she will be remanding the matter to the Board of Supervisors for reconsideration.
Smith wrote that the “catastrophic nature of the Atlas fire, and in particular the mass evacuations, many by helicopter, that resulted from the fire constitute truly new evidence of emergent facts that were not presented to the Board.”
Napa County refuted the need for Board of Supervisors reconsideration of Mountain Peak in various filings with the First District Court of Appeal and Napa County Superior Court.
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Supervisors in spring and summer of 2017, while they couldn’t consider the yet-to-occur Atlas fire, looked at wildfire history and risk in Soda Canyon. The Superior Court’s ruling contravenes the well-established policy of the finality of agency decisions, various county filings said.
Courts don’t micromanage agency approvals in lawsuits involving CEQA, one county filing said. They simply decide whether the agency considered applicable policies, considered whether the proposed project conforms to those policies and made appropriate findings supported by substantial evidence.
“The inclusion of the post-fire Atlas fire evidence clearly indicates the court is second-guessing the county’s decision, especially after acknowledging that the administrative record is ‘replete’ with evidence regarding the history of fires and risk of future fires,” a filing said.
Mountain Peak winery is to be located at 3265 Soda Canyon Road, about six miles from Silverado Trail. The county Planning Commission approved the winery on Jan. 4, 2017, and opponents – many of them Soda Canyon Road residents – appealed the case to the Board of Supervisors.
Opponents made the condition of Soda Canyon Road a major issue. They said a road with blind turns, a one-lane bridge, deteriorating asphalt, a hairpin turn, a steep grade and areas that flood couldn’t adequately serve winery visitors.
Supervisors had concerns about adding traffic to Soda Canyon Road. But they liked the applicant’s on-the-spot pledge to make 75 percent of the wine from grapes grown on the 41-acre winery property and a nearby 180-acre vineyard. Without a winery, those grapes would be hauled elsewhere, the applicant said.
The Board of Supervisors voted 4-0 to deny the appeal and approve Mountain Peak winery, with Supervisor Diane Dillon absent at the initial May 23, 2017 hearing and not taking part in the subsequent, final Aug. 22, 2017 vote.
In September 2018, Supervisors held a discussion on how to deal with new wineries coming to remote parts of the county and addressed wildfire dangers. Dillon said that perhaps wineries in certain areas should be required to cancel events during red-flag fire conditions.
The Soda Canyon Group in its lawsuit said the county under CEQA should have required in environmental impact report for Mountain Peak winery. The county instead relied on a less-detailed negative declaration study that found the project would have “less-than-significant” impacts or “no impacts” in areas ranging from transportation to water quality.