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Napa County is exploring ways to cut time-and-money-consuming bureaucracy for small wineries, especially small, family-owned wineries.

But it’s a balancing act. Some fear the county might also reduce public scrutiny over wine country growth that can cumulatively affect traffic, water supplies and the environment.

“To maintain its competitive advantage, Napa County must produce high-quality wines that cannot be replicated anywhere else,” a county report said. “These wines will likely come from small, independent wine makers.”

The Napa County Board of Supervisors on Tuesday decided the county is on the right track to help these winemakers. A proposed law is to go before the Planning Commission and then back to supervisors, perhaps by year’s end.

Winery owners who want to add as many as one employee must today go to the Planning Commission. Supervisor Alfredo Pedroza said that speaks to a broken system.

“The rules we have today aren’t appropriate for the way folks are trying to do business sustainably,” Pedroza said.

Napa County could allow more decisions to be made administratively or by the Zoning Administrator. Wineries with proposals that qualify wouldn’t go through Planning Commission hearings, as is done now, unless the county deemed the matter controversial.

Qualifying proposals for streamlining could include increasing wine production by 10 percent or to a maximum of 30,000 gallons annually. They could include increasing traffic to up to a total of 20 roundtrips daily to be divided among visitors, employees and deliveries.

Michelle Novi of Napa Valley Vintners during public comments asked the county to also look at the county’s criteria for requiring left-hand turn lane installations, which she called “simplistic and antiquated.”

“I think we have situations where adding a single employee can trigger the installation of a half-a-million-dollar left-hand turn lane,” she said.

Attorney Ross Middlemiss of the Center for Biological Diversity expressed concerns about the direction the county appears to be headed. He sees small changes at wineries as potentially adding up to big environmental impacts when taken as a whole.

“The protection of small producers is not a justification to pave over important regulatory protections,” he told supervisors. “Nor is it an excuse to remove public participation from important land use planning.”

Center for Biological Diversity and Growers/Vintners for Responsible Agriculture want the county to review its streamlining proposals under the California Environmental Quality Act.

“Anything short of that, you’re going to fall on your swords and there will be repercussions,” Angwin resident Mike Hackett told supervisors.

Planning, Building and Environmental Services Director David Morrison said the county’s general plan environmental impact report looked at growth from 2005 to 2030. It anticipated about 170 new wineries and up to 12,500 acres of new vineyards in that time frame.

“This (proposed) ordinance does not allow for any new growth,” Morrison said. “It just talks about how we consider and make decisions about future growth.”

Napa County under streamlining would continue notifying people living within 1,000 feet of wineries proposing to make changes and post the proposals on its website. County officials could still refer controversial decisions to the Planning Commission, a county report said.

“There’s no attempt to cut out the public here,” Morrison said.

Several members of the group Save The Family Farms asked supervisors to also help them. Members want the county to allow them to hold tastings at their farms without building wineries. Supervisors expressed interest but saw the request as a separate issue.

Napa County’s proposed winery streamlining changes are in three categories.

One category involves allowing the Planning, Building and Environmental Services director to approve certain permit changes that now go the Planning Commission. Among them are increasing wine production to a maximum of 30,000 gallons annually or by 10 percent, adding a commercial kitchen and increasing employees either by 10 percent or up to a total of 10 employees, whichever is greater.

Also, the county administratively could approve such things as outdoor shade structures, EV recharging stations, recycled water systems and landscaping changes.

Another category would apply to wineries in the Napa Valley Business Park. They would be able to seek major use permit modifications from the Zoning Administrator for such as wine production increases. The Zoning Administrator is a county planning official who holds a public hearing and then makes a decision.

This move would encourage wine production in the airport industrial area, where producers can use municipal water and keep traffic away from Upvalley wine country, Pedroza said.

Finally, there would be a special category for wineries previously approved with a small winery exemption.

Napa County during the 1980s allowed wineries to be built without discretionary approval if they met certain criteria, such as producing 20,000 gallons or less annually and having no wine tasting visitors. It stopped doing so almost three decades ago.

There are 34 such wineries listed as having this exemption, of which 28 are operating, a county report said. They have no use permits and must apply for one if they want tasting room visitors or marketing events.

“This can be a lengthy and expensive process, that may require bringing older facilities up to current development standards, all of which can be a significant financial impact to small wineries,” the report said.

Proposed streamlining would allow these wineries to go to the Zoning Administrator for certain changes, such as having up to 11 marketing events annually.

“It would be just for those existing small wineries, not as a category that would be available to any new winery ... these wineries have been operating in somewhat of a permit limbo,” Morrison said.

They are legal, but bound by an ordinance that is no longer fully operational, he said.

To see the proposed streamlining changes in detail, go to the Board of Supervisors agenda at https://bit.ly/2nT567a and look under item 10A.

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You can reach Barry Eberling at 256-2253 or beberling@napanews.com.

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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.