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Bremer Family Winery

Bremer Family Winery is seeking county permission to keep bridges and walls built within a stream setback required by county conservation laws.

Bremer Family Winery, which has been a focus of thorny county code and permit controversies, ran into a delay as it works to come into compliance.

The winery recently settled with Napa County over a lawsuit in which the county alleged a variety of illegalities, which the Bremers contested. They ranged from too many winery visitors to a number of building code violations.

Among other things, the settlement says the Bremers can ask the county Planning Commission to keep several pedestrian bridges and walls that under county law are too close to a creek. This matter and this matter only landed before the Planning Commission on Wednesday.

No commissioner called for removing the structures. But a majority also wanted more information before voting on a possible exemption from county conservation laws.

“We shouldn’t just be a stop in, check the box and keep going,” Commissioner Anne Cottrell said.

By a 3-2 vote, the commission after an hour-and-a-half continued the Bremer hearing until Oct. 16. That will give commissioners – and members of the public who objected to the requested exemptions – more time to sort things out.

“It’s muddy, that’s for sure,” Planning Commission chairperson Joelle Gallagher said.

Mike Hackett of Save Rural Angwin was among the citizens who requested a postponement. Among other things, they said they want time to obtain court transcripts from the county’s lawsuit against the Bremers.

“The county made repeated mistakes during the development of Bremer winery and vineyard,” Hackett wrote to the county. “We will not allow this to move forward without proper citizen feedback.”

Another Save Rural Angwin letter said the creek encroachments affect the Napa River watershed.

Bremer Family Winery is located at 975 Deer Park Road in the mountains northeast of St. Helena. John and Laura Bremer bought the winery in 2002.

A number of improvements are within required county stream setbacks ranging from 45 feet to 65 feet. Besides the three bridges and walls, a county report also listed a restroom, a reconstructed barn, winery pad, farmhouse addition and landscaping.

It wasn’t clear from the report how many of these features were built by the Bremers. Aerial photos and other research suggest that walls and bridges predated the Bremers’ purchase and were later maintained or repaired by the Bremers, the report stated.

The Bremers constructed the farmhouse additions and restroom with county-issued building permits, but the county inadvertently didn’t require the creek setback or an exemption, the report said.

The Bremers propose to offset the creek setback encroachments by planting oaks and shrubs along another stretch of the creek on their property to create better habitat.

Angwin resident Kellie Anderson told commissioners the Bremers should remove structures they inappropriately built within the creek setbacks. The county should evaluate the creek’s biological functions before considering any future Bremer building requests requiring an exemption.

“I understand people’s concerns, especially about our precious environment, especially here in Napa County,” attorney David Gilbreth responded on behalf of the Bremers.

He had biologist Brian Mayerle of FirstCarbon Solutions and Phil Blake, an agricultural and natural resources adviser for the firm RSA, address the commission. Neither found the creek being harmed by the structures within the setbacks.

“Doing any kinds of modifications to that – pulling back, removing things—would probably create greater instability and certainly a sediment source that hasn’t existed on the site for some time,” Blake said.

Gilbreth unsuccessfully asked the commission not to postpone the matter to another day.

“I’m not sure what you’ll gain,” he said.

Some commissioners wanted to understand how the stream setback piece fits into the larger Bremer puzzle. Not only is there the lawsuit settlement involving winery issues, but also violations over vineyard creation alleged by the county and state San Francisco Bay Regional Water Quality Control Board.

“I’m in no way in favor of flying in the face of the settlement agreement or making it more difficult,” Commissioner Jeri Hansen said.

Rather, she wants to create clarity for the process and for the community, she said.

Hansen, Gallagher and Cottrell voted to postpone the hearing until Oct. 16. Commissioners Dave Whitmer and Andrew Mazotti voted against a delay.

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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.