The Walt Ranch vineyard project in the hills between Napa and Lake Berryessa won a victory in Napa County Superior Court, but that apparently won’t be the last legal word.
Walt Ranch involves creating 209 acres of vineyard blocks and a total 316-acre disturbed area on a 2,300-acre property. It has become a flashpoint in battles over vineyard development in the agricultural watershed, with opponents saying it will hurt wildlife, cut down trees and sap groundwater supplies.
Judge Thomas Warriner on March 8 ruled in favor of Napa County, which approved the Walt Ranch erosion control plan in 2016. His ruling addressed three separate lawsuits, one by Living Rivers Council, one by Circle Oaks Homes Association and Circle Oaks County Water District and one by the Center for Biological Diversity and Sierra Club.
“We’re grateful to the court for its decision,” said Mike Reynolds of Walt Ranch. “Generally, I think it’s a reflection of the extensive work Napa County put in over a decade that analyzed all of the potential impacts and made sure that the project was as sensitive to the environment as possible.”
Local environmentalist Chris Malan on Tuesday said Living Rivers Council will appeal the court’s decision.
“It’s too important,” she said.
The Center for Biological Diversity had yet to decide as of early this week if it will appeal. Aruna Prabhala of the group said it is considering all options along with its lawsuit partner, the Sierra Club.
“We’re obviously disappointed with the ruling,” she said. “We thought we had a strong case.”
The Circle Oaks Homes Association and the Circle Oaks County Water District have yet to decide whether to appeal, Sue Wagner said Thursday on behalf of the groups.
Reynolds said vineyards could be planted in a couple of years. Meanwhile, Walt Ranch has been working on various environmental requirements imposed by Napa County.
The Atlas Fire last October burned through about 80 percent of Walt Ranch, Reynolds said.
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“We’re still trying to understand how that impacts all of the species on the property,” he said. “We don’t know all the answers to that.”
Warriner in his written opinion rejected several arguments by Walt Ranch opponents.
For example, he said the county isn’t improperly deferring mitigation for the possibility that Walt Ranch water use could sap community wells for neighboring, 179-home Circle Oaks. During and after vineyard development, Walt Ranch must monitor groundwater and take steps if problems arise.
Warriner disagreed with the claim that the environmental impact report “piecemeals” the project because it fails to consider that 35 estate homes could be built and sold on Walt Ranch. While zoning allows homes, there’s no evidence the owners are considering residential development, he wrote.
He wrote that studies done to see if the California red-legged frog is present on Walt Ranch are sufficient. He wrote that possible effects of vineyard operations on the foothill yellow-legged frog have been studied.
Walt Ranch is spearheaded by Craig and Kathryn Hall of HALL Wines in St. Helena. By early 2005, they had bought the 2,300-acre Walt Ranch property for $8 million and were looking at doing soil examinations to see how much of the land would be suitable for vineyards.
In 2008, the county released an initial study on Hall Brambletree Associates’ request for an erosion control plan to plant a 397-acre vineyard with a 509-acre total disturbed area.
The California Oak Foundation in 2009 accused vintners of recklessly ripping out woodlands in the hills to plant grapes and mentioned the Walt Ranch proposal as an example.
In 2014, Napa County released an environmental impact report for a 356-acre vineyard. Dozens of opponents showed up at hearings with signs saying “Halt Walt” and “No to soil erosion.”
Planning, Building and Environmental Services Director David Morrison in June 2016 granted Walt Ranch an erosion control plan for a smaller project. Opponents appealed and the Board of Supervisors in December 2016 approved Walt ranch for 209 acres of vineyards and a total disturbed area of 316 acres.