A proposed winery that would join a new mansion on a Rutherford-area property raised concerns not over any expected flood of tourists, but over literal floodwaters.
Patrick Cahill wants to build a 10,000-gallon-a-year winery on 20 acres at 1561 South Whitehall Lane, where he owns a second home. It would have no visitors or marketing events, the usual points of controversy for new wineries.
But recent storms put an exclamation point on neighbors’ flooding concerns. Several showed up at last week’s Napa County Planning Commission meeting with photographs of nearby vineyards poking up amid a few feet of water after recent storms.
That prompted the Planning Commission to postpone the hearing until March 15 in hopes Cahill and the neighbors can agree on plans to tackle flooding.
“I think recent events have really brought into relief the shortcomings of this project,” Commission chairwoman Jeri Gill said. “Had we not had the recent storm events, we might not be having this conversation today, because we wouldn’t have known these are issues on this property.”
Still, several commissioners said they were torn, given that an engineering report showed the proposed winery wouldn’t make existing flood problems any worse. County staff recommended that the commission approve the project.
“If you deny this winery, you haven’t changed anything (floodwise) there,” consultant Donna Oldford told commissioners on behalf of Cahill. “All you have done is deny the property rights for the guy who can’t do anything to fix an off-site circumstance.”
Cahill introduced himself to commissioners as a Bay Area native who is part of a multigenerational family construction business and a shareholder in a retail wine operation. He lives in Seattle, but said he has owned various second homes in the Napa Valley since the late-1990s, with the South Whitehall Lane property being the latest.
The San Francisco Business Times in July 2015 described the then-under-construction home at 1561 South Whitehall Lane as a “$38 million Napa Valley spec home” and wine estate. Real estate agents pitched it for people migrating from the Silicon Valley looking for the California lifestyle of glass walls and indoor-outdoor spaces.
Neighbors want to make certain floodwaters can continue to run through the property formerly used for grazing and is not diverted to their land. They said a winery could make flooding worse.
“Mr. Cahill bought land that others overlooked because it had a reputation as wetlands,” said Julie Garvey of nearby Garvey Family Vineyard. “This property functioned as an exquisite, natural flood project. In periods of heavy rains, it became like a lake. It was a fly zone for geese and other birds.”
Flooding in their own vineyards is a threat to their livelihood, Garvey said.
Mark Hornberger said the flooding that crosses the area’s road is a safety problem, because drivers of ambulances or fire trucks can’t see the edges of the flooded road. Development on the site has already changed the natural drainage patterns, he said.
Hornberger Vineyards is adjacent to the Cahill property.
Talk centered on Bale Slough and on a culvert that county staff said is too small. But fixing the problem would involve working with the California Department of Fish and Wildlife to get permits.
“I’m just reluctant to add new entitlements to a parcel, to a situation where we have some problems that need to be addressed,” Commissioner Anne Cottrell said.
Commissioner Terry Scott had the same concerns, but also saw the applicant’s point.
“I can’t imagine a winery that would be less impactful than one with no tours, no tastings, no marketing events, a 10,000 (gallon) capacity on a 20-acre site,” Scott said. “I find it very difficult to vote against that.”
Commissioners praised Cahill for agreeing to new conditions that day, such as scaling back operating hours and agreeing to make wine from grapes of which at least 75 percent would be grown onsite.
In the end, commissioners decided Cahill and the neighbors might be able to reach a community strategy to tackle community flooding problems and other mutual concerns.
“It’s worth the effort, in my mind,” Scott said.
At that point of the meeting, the Planning Commission had tackled two winery requests over more than six hours – the other was the proposed Flynnville winery—and had postponed both of them to future meetings. In both cases, commissioners hope the applicants and neighbors can reach compromises.
“Another anticlimactic ending,” Gill said as they wrapped up the Whitehall session.