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Napa County's winery scofflaw crackdown has backers and critics
Wine Industry

Napa County's winery scofflaw crackdown has backers and critics


Napa County has new rules for winery rule-breakers that some see as getting tough and others as rewarding scofflaws that do such things as entertain too many visitors and make too much wine.

“It’s firm, fair and it’s comprehensive,” Planning, Building and Environmental Services Director David Morrison told the Board of Supervisors on Tuesday.

Supervisors agreed and passed the new regime by a 4-0 vote, with Board Chairman Brad Wagenknecht absent. Supervisors have held three meetings on the proposals since Oct. 30.

“This is a stark break from the status quo that speaks to so many of your issues,” Supervisor Ryan Gregory told skeptics in the audience.

But environmentalist Mike Hackett called the new policy “a whitewash.” Grapegrower Yeoryios Apallas called it “papal absolution.”

A group called Growers/Vintners for Responsible Agriculture in a letter favored taking a closer look at enforcement. Signers include Andy Beckstoffer of Beckstoffer Vineyards, Warren Winiarski of Arcadia Vineyards and Robin Lail of Lail Vineyards.

“The county needs to implement a process that builds consensus and does not create further division within our community,” the letter stated.

County officials seemed taken aback by this response to their code compliance crackdown effort. They said they didn’t see a whitewash or absolution and wondered aloud if critics understand what the county is undertaking.

“How have we gotten this far disconnected?” Supervisor Diane Dillon asked.

Under the new law, violators have until March 29 to submit “substantially conforming” applications to the county to try to legalize their situations and take advantage of a grace period. They can continue operating as they are until the county decides their case, unless a violation poses a health or safety threat.

They must win Planning Commission approval to legalize the violations, an outcome that is not guaranteed. Also, the county will inspect the properties to make certain there aren’t any other violations.

This is what Morrison called the “transition period.”

If the county catches scofflaws after March 29, they must immediately comply with their use permits and can’t seek changes for a year. A winery permitted for 20,000 gallons that’s producing 60,000 gallons would have to cut back to 20,000 gallons.

This policy applies not only to winery owners, but other property owners with use permits in the unincorporated area, whether the permits are for a hotel or restaurant or something else.

Resident Harvest Duhig said the new rules don’t let anybody avoid the county’s rigorous permit process. Rather, they will help wineries figure out use permits subject to different layers of county laws enacted over the years.

“This process is a process of compromise,” she said.

Laurie Claudon of Clark Claudon Vineyards depicted winery rule-breaking as more than use-permit confusion in some cases. She’s heard of people developing wine businesses who plan to break the rules and build possible penalties into their budgets.

“For many people in the valley these days who come to develop, their wealth is beyond, beyond, beyond,” she said. “It’s not a problem for them to pay penalties. It’s worth it to them to pay the penalties to get what they want.”

Napa Valley Vintners officials didn’t address supervisors. An earlier letter from the group said NVV approved of the county’s direction while wanting to push back the March 29 deadline.

One bone of contention involves a court decision on California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) requirements. That decision said the baseline used for environmental studies is conditions on the ground, not historic conditions.

Skeptics of the county’s new policy said scofflaws meeting the March 29 deadline will have their violations built into the CEQA baseline. That means inadequate environmental review that avoids scrutinizing traffic increases and other impacts resulting from the violations, they said.

In contrast, violators who miss the March 29 deadline and have to comply with their use permits for a year will see that baseline reset.

Soon-to-be-sworn-in St. Helena Mayor Geoff Ellsworth asked the county to delay making a decision. He wanted his city to review the proposals.

Morrison said arguments to delay making a decision are arguments for the status quo. Supervisors and county officials portrayed the new policy as the best way to address code violations that have caused controversy for years.

“We are not offering absolution,” Morrison said. “We are holding people accountable ... We are trying to clean the house and some people are saying, ‘You missed a spot.’ I don’t think that should stop us from trying to clean the house.”

The county advises property owners in the unincorporated county to review their use permits. They can apply to the county for a status determination to clarify existing entitlements. The county can extend the March 29 deadline for owners going through status determination.

In addition, the county is creating a new winery audit program. Wineries by July 1 of each year would submit how many gallons they produced the previous year. Those subject to the 75 percent rule would report how much came from Napa County grapes. They would submit United States Department of Agriculture California Grape Crush Inquiry Reports and United States Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau records as verification.

Should the county find a winery is producing too much wine or is violating the 75-percent Napa County grape rule, if applicable, it would do further investigations into such areas as visitation.


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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.

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