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Napa Supervisors surprised by deluge of comments on family farm woes and winery rules

Napa Supervisors surprised by deluge of comments on family farm woes and winery rules


Helping small farmers who say they are facing a crisis, rethinking winery restrictions and further protecting watersheds are issues that some claim belong in Napa County’s three-year, big-vision action plan.

The Napa County Board of Supervisors had been scheduled Tuesday to adopt its 2019-2022 strategic plan that begins in July. It delayed until Jan. 15 amid comments from 29 speakers during the meeting and more delivered by mail and email.

“We hope this plan represents the community’s collective voices, concerns and desires for the future of Napa County,” County Executive Officer Minh Tran said.

Not quite, some residents from a variety of backgrounds told the Board. Among them was Elise Nerlove, whose family owns a 20-acre vineyard in Jameson Canyon, but doesn’t have a winery and instead uses a custom crush facility. That means the Nerloves cannot hold tastings or sell wine on their land.

“Sadly, Napa is now an environment where small family farms cannot survive,” said Nerlove, who is studying viticulture at Napa Valley College.

Nerlove is part of a new group called Save the Family Farm. These growers in similar situations to the Nerloves’ say they want to hold tastings and sell wines from their patios and barns as mom-and-pop operations, within regulations.

John Bonick owns eight acres and grows grapes. He said that, perhaps unintentionally, the advantages seem to have gone to the large wine producers in Napa County.

“We just want you to know there’s a crisis for small family farms,” Bonick told supervisors.

Hayley Hossfeld is a second-generation grapegrower. Her family lost three-quarters of its Soda Canyon vineyards in the 2017 Atlas Fire and is trying to recover. She too wants the ability to host a limited number of visitors at the vineyard.

Nerlove said Save the Family Farm has about 1,500 signatures on an online petition asking the county to make changes.

Supervisors also heard the priorities of Coalition Napa Valley, a group of vintners that includes Chuck Wagner of Caymus Vineyards, Dario Sattui of Castello di Amorosa, Stu Smith of Smith-Madrone Vineyards, Ryan Waugh of Waugh Family Wines and Julie Arbuckle of Anthem Winery.

“Anti-winery vitriol and hyperbole have taken control of the narrative about the greatest wine-producing valley in the world, threatening the singular importance of this industry to the local job market, schools, housing and tax revenues supporting all of its citizens,” the group’s report stated.

The group proposed the county stop limiting how many visitors and employees each winery can have. Winery visitation should be based on a winery’s infrastructure, such as water and wastewater.

“Put another way, neither Napa County nor its constituent municipalities tell a restaurant or hotel or bowling alley or dentist how many employees or visitors to have each day,” the group’s paper said.

Another Coalition Napa Valley idea is to make estate homes of a certain size go through a permitting process that includes a county Planning Commission hearing. These proposed homes would face the same criteria that proposed wineries face, such as biological, water use and storm runoff requirements.

“I think homes are one of our greatest threats to agriculture,” said Tom Davies of V. Sattui Winery on behalf of Coalition Napa Valley.

Still another Coalition idea is to further shift large-scale wine production and administration to the south county, to the airport industrial area and American Canyon. That would lessen traffic in the heart of Napa Valley.

“Large wineries should be encouraged to remove, over time, some or all of their non-county grapes and wines from entering the congested upper valley,” the Coalition’s paper said. “A voluntary, 10-year sunset could be put in place. Local vintner and growers associations, politicians, friends and neighbors can encourage and help raise awareness.”

Advocates of Measure C, the watershed and oak woodland protection ballot measure that narrowly failed to pass in the June 5 election, attended the meeting.

Measure co-author Mike Hackett didn’t speak, but presented a list of actions he said the county must take to preclude another ballot measure attempt. These actions would affect development, such as new vineyard development, in the agricultural watershed zoning district that includes the mountains around the Napa Valley.

Among the listed actions is maintaining 85 percent of the tree canopy and 40 percent of shrubs and grassland on properties. No planting could take place on slopes of more than 30 percent. Streams setbacks would be strengthened. Forest lost to development would be replaced at a 3-1 ratio instead of 2-1.

Johnnie White of the Napa County Farm Bureau didn’t address these proposals. But he did talk of making sure regulations are based on data and don’t kill “the spirit of the little guy,” a reference to those who have small farms.

Once the public had spoken, supervisors had their say. Supervisor Ryan Gregory said forests and tree canopies need more protection. The county can strike a balance between farming and having clean water.

“We should get going on that right away,” he said.

He also wanted the strategic plan to emphasize that businesses are important, including small farms and small wineries.

Supervisor Alfredo Pedroza suggested Napa County form a regional climate action authority with the Board of Supervisors and representatives from the cities. It could look at such things as watershed issues around reservoirs, as the county and city of Napa are already doing.

Supervisor Diane Dillon said one priority is making certain the 2020 U.S.Census count for the county is accurate. Otherwise, the county could suffer the next 10 years from an undercount.

“Federal funding depends on the Census count,” Dillon said. “All sorts of other things depend on the Census count.”

The draft strategic plan has 81 proposed action steps.

“We have to set priorities … we’re not hiring more staff in the next three years just for this process,” Dillon said.

The draft strategic plan lists action steps for a range of subjects, from mental health to public health to libraries. Some speakers on Tuesday addressed these issues. But winery and vineyard growth proved to be a big topic with the public.

“In Napa, 90 percent of what supervisors work on and do is not land use … but 90 percent of what usually gets people to come down here and (to) vote is land use,” Board chairman Brad Wagenknecht said.

Pop the cork on Napa Valley wine!

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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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