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Napa's Walt Ranch vineyard hearings open with protest

Napa's Walt Ranch vineyard hearings open with protest


People waged the Walt Ranch battle in the Napa County Board of Supervisors chamber and on the street.

County supervisors on Friday opened what will be a multi-day hearing on the proposed vineyard project. Walt Ranch involves creating 209 acres of vineyard blocks amid 2,300 acres in the mountains between the city of Napa and Lake Berryessa.

Opponents and supporters packed the Board chambers and spilled into overflow areas where they watched the proceedings on television. They had the chance to make their cases to supervisors.

But opponents also took their case to the public. About 100 of them at noon stood in front of the county administration building holding up signs reading “clean water” and “no chainsaw wine.“

What’s so bad about Walt Ranch? Elizabeth Bosch of Napa doesn’t like the idea of removing thousands of oaks to make room for vineyards.

“You can’t replace a watershed,” she said as she held a sign with a picture of a chainsaw on it. “That’s a wonderful, pristine watershed.”

Local resident Jim Wilson helped organize the rally.

“The goal is to increase awareness and sensitivity to the cry of the earth and the cry of the poor so we can reflect on what we’re doing, on how our behavior impacts our environment,” he said.

He expressed hope the demonstration would influence the Board of Supervisors. He is hoping for strong moral and political leadership, Wilson said.

A Register reporter during a Board of Supervisors meeting break approached a handful of people wearing tags proclaiming their support of Walt Ranch. Each politely declined to comment.

Hall Brambletree Associates LLP applied to the county for the Walt Ranch vineyard project in 2007. Championing the project are Craig and Kathryn Hall of HALL Wines in St. Helena.

County Planning, Building and Environmental Services Director David Morrison in August approved the needed erosion control plan for Walt Ranch. He said the project complies with the county’s general plan and takes appropriate steps to mitigate environmental impacts.

Appealing his decision to the Board of Supervisors are Napa Sierra Club, Living Rivers Council, Center for Biological Diversity and, in a joint appeal, Circle Oaks County Water District and Circle Oaks Homes Association.

City of Napa Water General Manager Joy Eldredge in a 2014 letter to the county warned that water runoff from Walt Ranch vineyards containing nutrients and other materials could hurt water quality in Milliken Reservoir. Improving the reservoir water treatment plant to handle potential problems could cost $20 million.

But on Friday, Eldredge praised a water monitoring plan the city and Walt Ranch agreed to last summer. Walt Ranch is to monitor water runoff at nine locations and take steps to deal with any problems that might arise.

“It’s a rational approach,” Eldredge said. “It gathers data. I think that’s where we need to be in the future.”

Mike Reynolds of Walt Ranch in a Nov. 7 letter to the county noted how the project has changed. The environmental impact report analyzed a version calling for 356 acres of vineyards and a total of 507 acres of disturbed land. Morrison approved 209 acres of vineyards and 316 acres of disturbed land.

Although vineyard acreage has shrunk, costs for environmental mitigations and other expenses have not. Environmental review, engineering and entitlements alone have cost $5.2 million, Reynolds wrote.

He calculated the expense to create 209 acres of Walt Ranch vineyard will be $269,000 an acre. Buying an existing vineyard in the Atlas Peak area would cost about $234,000 an acre.

“Costs in excess of this amount are, from an economic perspective, infeasible, in that a rational investor would not pay more than this amount,” Reynolds wrote.

Reynolds argued that the vineyard acreage shouldn’t be reduced still further. Thomas Lippe on behalf of Living Rivers Council drew another conclusion from this financial information.

Lippe characterized Walt Ranch officials as in essence saying a feasible alternative exists to creating a 209-acre vineyard. That is going out and buying vineyards that are already developed.

Supervisors heard from consultant Annalee Sanborn, the project manager for the Walt Ranch environmental impact report completed for the county. She too stressed how the proposed Walt Ranch vineyard acreage has shrunk over the years.

“Part of the confusion and controversy could be a lack of understanding of how the project has evolved,” Sanborn said.

For example, she said, the number of trees to be cut down has been reduced from 28,000 to 14,000. The county had not previously mentioned this new figure at a public meeting.

But the new figure failed to satisfy Wilson. Removing 14,000 oaks from Walt Ranch is indefensible, he said during the outdoor rally.

One controversy is whether creating Walt Ranch vineyards will increase runoff from the property, possibly washing fish-harming sediments into creeks and and increasing landslides. The environmental impact report said the Walt Ranch project won’t increase runoff.

Among the stated reasons is that earthmoving equipment will dig into soils two feet to six feet deep before vineyards are planted. Thomas Smith of RiverSmith Engineering said this soil ripping will break up an impermeable layer of rock and allow for more water to seep into the ground.

Appellants challenged whether this increased infiltration will be permanent. Smith acknowledged the controversy, but told supervisors he stands by his report.

“I stamped it and signed it with full confidence there is no offsite impacts to this land use change,” Smith said.

Lippe on behalf of Living Rivers Council said field tests involving the effects of deep soil ripping on infiltration has been done at only one Walt Ranch location. Now the county is looking at requiring tests at proposed vineyard block locations to be done after project approval.

“You just can’t do it that way,” Lippe said.

The Board of Supervisors spent most of the all-day session simply taking all of this in.

“I want to underscore, we are here to listen to you,” Board Chairman Alfredo Pedroza told the packed chamber as the hearing began.

The Walt Ranch hearing is to continue when the Board of Supervisors meets at 9 a.m. Tuesday in its chamber at the county administration building, 1195 Third St. in downtown Napa.

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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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