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Napa wrestles with definition of agriculture

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Changing the definition of agriculture is a fighting proposition in a county where farmland preservation is part of the community’s very identity.

Napa County is updating its county code so the definition of agriculture there matches that found in the 2008 general plan. Some view this as an overdue housekeeping item, others as an exercise that could unintentionally blow holes in agricultural protection.

“It’s a fairly simple change in many ways,” Planning, Building and Environmental Services Director David Morrison said.

But Napa County Farm Bureau and others fear the county might inadvertently allow wineries, wine marketing and other activities on farmland by right, instead of continuing to require county permission. It’s all in the wording.

“Words do mean a lot of things and they should be as specific as possible,” Farm Bureau representative Lucio Perez said.

The latest chapter of the definition saga played out last week before the Napa County Planning Commission. The next will be before the Board of Supervisors at a yet-to-be-announced date.

“Good luck with the decision,” county resident David Heitzman told the Planning Commission. “Our future is in your hands.”

The county wants to carry out the 2008 general plan directions by adding three categories to the zoning code definition of agriculture:

- Production and processing of agricultural products.

- Marketing, sales and other accessory uses that are related, incidental and subordinate to the main agriculture use.

- Farmworker housing.

County staff proposed new code language to carry this out. Critics said the trick is that county code allows agriculture in agriculturally zoned areas by right.

An original code amendment proposed by the county sought to deal with this. It said agriculture includes processing of agricultural products and related, incidental marketing and sales, “notwithstanding” requirements for obtaining a conditional use permit. In other words, use permits are still required.

But the word “notwithstanding” raised alarm bells in some quarters.

Merriam-Webster defines “notwithstanding” as meaning “without being prevented by,” attorney Michelle Black wrote to the county. She’s afraid the county’s proposal could be interpreted as saying that processing, marketing and sales can’t be prevented by use permit requirements.

Black said she wrote on behalf of Friends of the Napa County Agricultural Preserve.

Angwin resident Jim Welsh suggested changing “notwithstanding” to “and comply with all” use permit requirements.

A letter from attorney Ellison Folk on behalf of the Farm Bureau said the changes as proposed by county staff would effectively redesignate thousands of acres of agriculturally zoned land for non-agriculture uses, such as light industrial agricultural processing. That would require a vote of the people under Measure P.

Morrison disagreed.

“I don’t see this as being any significant new departure or change,” Morrison said. “This is an acknowledgement of what the county has been doing for decades now — that is allowing for production, marketing and sales on agricultural property.”

But he was open to changing the wording to make it clearer that wineries will still require use permits.

Commissioner Jeri Gill had no argument with the county’s intent.

“There is maybe a misinterpretation today that this is a change when we have been operating under this policy since 2008, when the general plan was approved,” Gill said.

Commissioner Heather Phillips had concerns.

“I think maybe there’s a reason this definition wasn’t implemented for 10 years,” Phillips said. “And maybe there’s a reason it needs clarification before it’s implemented.”

Commissioner Anne Cottrell pressed for several clarifications, including changing the word “notwithstanding.” The commission then sent the issue to the Board of Supervisors by a 4-1 vote, with Phillips dissenting.

Michelle Benvenuto of Winegrowers of Napa County is among those who supported the code definition changes.

“The county is rural and we’ve kept it that way,” Benvenuto told commissioners. “This definition has been in effect since 2008. It is working. We’re just adjusting the zoning code to reflect that.”

County supervisors will decide if the wording reflected in the proposed changes achieves this goal.

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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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