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Scott Espinoza and Sound Cannons (copy)

Scott Espinoza, who lives next to a vineyard on North Kelly Road, said in August 2017 that the owner of the vineyard uses propane sound cannons far more than is needed to scare off birds.

Napa County is looking for ways that farmers can use propane cannons to scare away grape-feasting birds without the noise rattling the nerves of some south county residents.

Gunshot-like propane cannon noise during growing season is an issue in Carneros and American Canyon areas. The county Agricultural Commissioner’s office recently released draft standards for cannon use.

Among the still-evolving ideas: devices shall be used only during daylight hours with onsite supervision and only for bird species that are causing crop damage in commercial agriculture.

“It’s a way to provide a little more teeth without going too far and resulting in significant constraints on farming operations,” Planning, Building and Environmental Services Director David Morrison said.

Agricultural Commissioner Humberto Izquierdo presented the possible standards to the county Planning Commission on Wednesday for comment. Several commissioners suggested limiting the number of propane cannons per acre and the frequency of the blasts, as is done in neighboring Solano County.

“I think there’s room to regulate both of those things here without impinging on anyone’s farming ability,” Commissioner Anne Cottrell said.

Propane cannons are used mostly in the south county, near the vast wetlands of the Pacific Flyway that are home to many birds, county officials said. The county Agricultural Commissioner’s office has received 30 noise complaints about cannon noise over three years, with other county departments also receiving complaints.

Napa County’s Right to Farm ordinance allows farmers to use accepted commercial farming practices in a manner “consistent with proper and accepted customs and standards,” a county report stated. However, since the county has no standards for propane cannons, code enforcement has had difficulty citing those who use the cannons improperly.

The draft standards would do such things as prevent an absentee owner who lives three counties away from setting up a cannon to operate by itself and then returning home, leaving the device unmonitored. Somebody would have to monitor the cannon.

“It’s not a set-it-and-forget-it type of device,” Izquierdo said.

Commissioner Andrew Mazotti questioned a proposed standard that would require farmers using cannons to first identity and monitor crop damage from birds.

“If I owned vineyards and you have to wait for a problem to happen, you have to wait for the birds to come, I’d have an issue with that,” Mazotti said. “I’d rather be proactive and prevent that from happening.”

Morrison said some people have shot off cannons every two minutes even though there’s not a bird in the sky, such as in a feud to annoy the neighbors. The standards would require a rational reason for using propane cannons.

Commissioner Dave Whitmer, the former county agricultural commissioner, said the proposed standard mentioned by Mazotti fits an integrated pest management approach. That means identifying a problem, then determining how to solve it. An acceptable proactive approach might be developing habitat for raptors that deter the pest birds.

“When it comes to setting a device, it shouldn’t be done based on a date on the calendar,” Whitmer said.

Greg Ames lives in an American Canyon subdivision near the wetlands. The cannons are creating a public nuisance for many residents, he said.

“Basically during the grow season, I hear a cannon every one-and-a-half to two seconds,” Ames said. “I happen to live six-and-half to eight miles away from Carneros. The cannons are coming from Carneros.”

He’d like less cannons firing less frequently in the Carneros, so that the noise from the collective barrage might be a blast every 30 seconds or every minute, Ames told commissioners.

Jennifer Leslie and Scott Espinoza raise goats and chickens along North Kelly Road. They’ve said a neighbor is hiding behind the Right to Farm ordinance to harass them with propane cannon noise during grape-growing season, an motivation the neighbor has denied.

“I’m not talking about something that’s a pop that you hear off in the hills occasionally,” Leslie told commissioners. “I’m talking about blasts that are coming directly at our house, surrounding our house like a gauntlet, blasting four times or more a minute … I have to wear gun-range hearing protection to go out into my yard.”

Michelle Benvenuto, executive director of Winegrowers of Napa County, agreed the county needs to take action on propane cannons. Another group, Napa Valley Grapegrowers, has worked to educate members on the topic, she said.

“Part of the issue is improper use of cannons,” she said. “That’s what this (county) policy is looking to correct.”

Napa County plans to hold a community meeting on draft propane cannon standards from 5:30 to 7 p.m. March 8 at the county’s South Campus, 2751 Napa Valley Corporate Drive.

Amid all of this, Whitmer put in a good word for the birds. Birds are important to the post-harvest cleanup of vineyards.

“The starling flocks that come through, the robins and other birds really do a tremendous service to folks in the industry by cleaning up old clusters and what not,” he said.

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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.