Napa County intends to cut red tape for what it deems to be modest winery expansion requests, even though a group called Water Audit California warned of possible legal action.
County officials said the goal is simply to move consideration of more routine decisions from the Planning Commission to county staff, such as adding a few employees or a certain amount of wine production. Environmental rules and public noticing will still apply.
But Water Audit California is expressing concern that streamlining could hurt streams and fish.
The Board of Supervisors on Tuesday reaffirmed its previously announced intention to cut red tape. It unanimously voted its intent to modify existing laws, with a final vote to come at a future meeting.
“We’re just finding efficiencies here,” Supervisor Ryan Gregory said.
“It’s still a public process,” Board chairperson Diane Dillon said. “There is nothing that makes it not public, anything we’re doing today.”
Water Audit California sent a letter to the county expressing concern over the proposed rule changes. The group or its members have been involved in lawsuits to secure more water for streams from reservoirs serving St. Helena, Calistoga and Yountville.
More water in streams and the Napa River is supposed to help salmon, steelhead and other fish. But Water Audit California said anticipated benefits appear not to have been fully realized – and sees the county as a missing piece of the puzzle.
Among other things, erosion has silted streams and infilled reservoirs and unmonitored agricultural runoff has hurt water quality, Grant Reynolds of Water Audit California wrote to the county.
“Simply put, it appears the county has largely ignored its duties to protect the public trust in its mono-focused pursuit of economic development,” Reynolds wrote.
A 2018 county water study acknowledged that groundwater and the Napa River are linked, he wrote. That raises the concern of Napa River water being lost to groundwater pumping.
“In short, by the county granting well permits for agricultural purposes, it is extracting water from the Napa River that Water Audit obtained for and dedicated to the public trust,” he wrote.
The group sees no record of discussion by the Board of Supervisors on how the streamlined winery expansion policies will affect the public trust, Reynolds wrote.
The Center for Biological Diversity also expressed concerns. That group said 219 local wineries produce 20,000 gallons of wine or less. If these wineries used streamlined policies to increase production, there would be increased demand for grapes and water and increased hillside vineyard development.
But county officials said the assumption that changes under the streamlining rule won’t be subject to environmental review is incorrect. A winery request would still be reviewed for effects on groundwater and surface water.
“Nothing in this ordinance will authorize any uses that aren’t currently authorized,” Deputy County Counsel Jason Dooley said.
The county will change the proposed streaming laws to make this point clearer.
Sharon Crull of The Terraces winery addressed the Board of Supervisors during public comments.
She remembers Water Audit California from her days on the St. Helena City Council, when the group sued the city. Seeing the group’s letter to the county “felt like a dagger to the heart,” Crull said.
Major modification proposals presently must be approved by the Planning Commission. Crull sees putting some requests into a simpler, less-expensive approval track as being important for small wineries.
“We can’t safely operate with one-and-a-half employees,” Crull said. “And we can’t pay the bills with two visitors a day. And we can’t afford a $5 million major modification right now.”
Morrison said last year that he’d rather have staff decide relatively minor, technical issues. Then the Planning Commission and Board of Supervisors would have more time to look at complex, broad issues such as climate change, housing, traffic, water, fire and growth in general.
“The streamlining is also to the county’s benefit as well, so we can focus on the big issues that really do affect people and do so effectively,” Morrison said
You can reach Barry Eberling at 256-2253 or firstname.lastname@example.org.