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Napa County has passed its controversial Water Quality and Tree Protection Ordinance and now various environmental and agricultural groups are pondering their next steps.

The Board of Supervisors on Tuesday took the second, final vote after introducing the ordinance on March 26. It adopted the ordinance 5-0, with provisions to take effect in 30 days.

“I appreciate that people are still not totally satisfied,” Supervisor Brad Wagenknecht said. “I’ve heard that. My emails and phone have been telling me that the past couple of weeks. But I think we’ve gotten to a good spot.”

The Board voted to increase tree preservation requirements and mitigation ratios for cut-down trees. It created setbacks for wetlands, municipal reservoirs and ephemeral streams. It exempted fire management done under Cal Fire guidelines.

Some have called on the county to do more. Others have said the county could needlessly hurt agriculture and the wine industry by limiting vineyard expansion. 

Jim Wilson, a co-author of the Measure C oak woodlands and watershed protection ballot initiative that narrowly lost in the June 2018 election, didn’t rule out another initiative attempt. The next possibility is for the March 2020 election.

“This is part of the considerations – how do we get some real improvements in watershed protections, instead of small, incremental improvements and more halfway measures in a climate-change world?” Wilson said before the meeting.

Napa County Farm Bureau CEO Ryan Klobas said before the meeting that his group wants stronger conservation regulations to be supported by science and data that he has yet to see. He expressed concern that the county is moving ahead with “a political solution in search of a problem.”

At this point, it’s unclear if anyone will attempt a referendum of the ordinance that would put it to a vote of the people. Klobas said that the Farm Bureau Board of Directors has yet to discuss this possibility.

To successfully file for a referendum, parties must within 30 days of an ordinance being passed turn in a petition with signatures equaling at least 10 percent of county votes cast for governor in the last gubernatorial election, Registrar of Voters John Tuteur said. That comes to 5,635 signatures.

Tuteur said in a phone interview on Tuesday that no party has contacted him about a possible referendum on the Water Quality and Tree Protection Initiative. But such advanced warning may not happen.

Klobas also noted before the meeting that three Board of Supervisors seats are on the March 2020 ballot, adding another dimension to the post-ordinance dynamics. Those are the seats held by Supervisors Belia Ramos, Alfredo Pedroza and Ryan Gregory.

Opposing sides in the watershed protection debate might either support different candidates or run candidates of their own.

The Farm Bureau recently formed a political action committee with the stated purpose of supporting candidates friendly to agriculture. A group email said the PAC could do such things as candidate recruitment, candidate training, fundraising assistance, polling, financial contributions, advertising, phone banking and mass mailings.

For his part, Measure C co-author Mike Hackett said after the meeting that he’d love to see environmental candidates run in March 2020.

Hackett said the science for stronger Napa County conservation measures exists in a report prepared for the Growers/Vintners for Responsible Agriculture by Napa County resident and geographer Amber Manfree. That report was given to the county and Supervisor Diane Dillon referred to it at the March 26 meeting.

Among other things, Manfree concluded that the county’s ordinance leaves 28,000 acres of trees, mostly oaks, at risk. That compares to the 795-acre cap that Measure C sought to impose on oak removal in the agricultural watershed zoning district.

Michelle Benvenuto of Winegrowers of Napa County told supervisors she has been unable to get a copy of Manfree’s study.

“This study has not been peer-reviewed,” she said. “No one knows what it says, except for a few people.”

Science is available on the health of local watersheds, Benvenuto said. Since 2005, forests in Napa County have decreased a mere 1.2 percent, she said.

"Again, this isn't deforestation going on," Benvenuto said. "This isn't our hillsides being destroyed. This is our existing regulations working."

The county after the meeting provided a copy of the Manfree report to both the Napa Valley Register and Benvenuto.

Supervisors at times have talked about trying to strike a balance with their ordinance. That wasn’t the approach everyone wanted to see them take.

“Pretending to split the difference is not in the interests of the county as a whole,” said Ross Middlemiss of the Center for Biological Diversity, which wants stronger protections.

Resident George Bachich said the ordinance is vague and has contradictions. He mentioned the Read and Understand Act passed by local voters in 2006, which requires supervisors to certify they have read and understand the ramifications of laws they pass.

“I don’t see how you can possibly sign your certifications under these circumstances,” Bachich told supervisors during the public comments session.

Tuesday’s meeting was no repeat of the March 26 meeting, which covered seven hours, not including breaks, and had 62 speakers. Supervisors completed the latest session in about an hour and heard from about a dozen people.

But, if the decibel level was lower with the Board’s decision all but made, the latest meeting made it clear that the watershed protection debate is far from over.

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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.