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Napa County supervisors search for elusive watershed middle ground

Napa County supervisors on Tuesday will take on what to date has been a baffling brainteaser – how to heal community divisions prompted by ongoing watershed and tree protection debates.

Some community members are demanding the county do more to safeguard reservoir water quality and save carbon-sequestering trees to combat climate change. Others say no proof exists that drastic steps are needed and that the results could hurt agriculture and vineyard development.

The county waded into the fray with three previous meetings that each had 50 speakers or more during public comments and no apparent middle ground. Now a draft Water Quality and Tree Protection Ordinance heads to the Board of Supervisors for a decision amid as much controversy as ever.

Supervisors will decide whether to increase 60 percent tree canopy retention in municipal reservoir watersheds to 70 percent and extend it to the entire unincorporated county.

They’ll decide whether to ban most development on slopes greater than 30 percent. They’ll decide whether mitigation for cut-down forests and woodlands should be at a 2-1 or 3-1 ratio.

Whatever action they take on these and other proposals, it seems certain some segments of the community will say they’ve done too little or too much. That is, unless they can somehow find the grand compromise that brings the various sides together.

“That’s our hope, that there are people on both sides that are real torn, but that we can find a solid middle and move us forward,” Supervisor Brad Wagenknecht said. “We’ll see.”

Rep. Mike Thompson, D-St. Helena, convened the various interested parties last year to try to get the issue moving. But now the forum is the Board of Supervisors.

“I have great confidence in the Board of Supervisors and they have an excellent staff,” Thompson said recently.

Mike Hackett co-authored Measure C, the watershed and oak protection initiative that narrowly failed to pass in the June 2018 election amid opposition from the wine industry. He has some advice for the Board of Supervisors.

“Maybe the only way to bring the community together is to show leadership,” Hackett said.

But many of the things Measure C advocates want—such as tree canopy protection of 85 percent to 90 percent—are viewed by Napa County Farm Bureau and other groups as harmful to agriculture.

Hackett mentioned the controversy in 1968 over creating the Napa County agricultural preserve zoning, which is now widely accepted and praised. He said tougher watershed and tree protections could take the same path.

“People tell me it was exactly the same in ’68—brother versus brother,” Hackett said. “Real, meaningful change takes courage.”

Michelle Benvenuto, executive director of Winegrowers of Napa County, doesn’t want the county to view the draft Water Quality and Tree Protection Ordinance as a sequel to Measure C. She noted Measure C is mentioned in the preamble to the proposed ordinance.

“If Measure C was so controversial, why do we keep bringing up Measure C?” she said.

She’d like to see a stakeholders group tackle the issue of whether more tree and watershed protections are needed. The group would use data and science to arrive at a course of action, if needed.

“The county has yet to identify what the problem is, except the political problem,” Benvenuto said.

People with various perspectives are taking steps prior to Tuesday’s meeting. The Center for Biological Diversity sent out a press release calling the present version of the Water Quality and Tree Protection Ordinance “watered-down” and “a fig leaf.”

“County supervisors should reject it in favor of a measure that actually prevents water pollution and deforestation,” said Ross Middlemiss, an attorney with the group.

Meanwhile, resident George Bachich in a notice mailed to rural property owners said the proposed ordinance endangers property rights and urged a “massive public protest” at Tuesday’s meeting. Bachich has been involved over the years in county land-use debates as a member of the Napa Valley Land Stewards Alliance.

The issue has the potential to end up at the ballot box. If some people think the Board of Supervisors passes too strict an ordinance, they could seek to overturn it through a referendum. Should Measure C advocates think the ordinance too lax, they could try to strengthen it through another ballot measure.

In addition, supervisor seats for three districts – the ones represented by Alfredo Pedroza, Ryan Gregory and Belia Ramos – are on the March 2020 ballot. The watershed protection debate is certain to be an issue.

All of this should make for county policy drama Tuesday in the Board of Supervisors chamber at 1195 Third St. in downtown Napa. The meeting begins at 9 a.m., but people for past meetings on this topic have had to come early to get a seat in the chamber. Others watch a broadcast in the lobby or in an overflow room.

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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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