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Napa County in 2018 celebrated the 50th birthday of its landmark agricultural preserve and also had a bitter debate over how the spirit of that law should translate to today.

Board of Supervisors Chair Brad Wagenknecht said as the year began that the United States is divided into red states and blue states. People in the two camps sometimes seem to lack a common purpose to bring them together.

“In Napa, we have one,” Wagenknecht said. “It’s our ag preserve.”

The agricultural preserve prevents land on the Napa Valley floor from being subdivided into parcels less than 40 acres. That is designed to keep the heart of rural, world-famous wine country safe from subdivisions and strip malls.

But some say the modern-day battle is over what they see as runaway vineyard growth in the local hills and mountains. They fear the clear-cutting of oak woodlands for new vineyards will harm water quality in reservoirs that serve local cities.

Rural residents Mike Hackett and Jim Wilson co-authored Measure C on the June ballot to address issues in the agricultural watershed. It sought to cap the amount of oak woodlands that can be removed for vineyards at 795 acres, which Wilson and Hackett said should accommodate expected vineyard growth through 2030. It sought to strengthen stream setbacks.

“The thing we have in common is we both have a spiritual desire to maintain this world that we live in for everyone and for the future of our grandchildren,” Hackett said before the election.

The wine industry disagreed that Measure C was needed, with Napa County Farm Bureau, Napa Valley Vintners, Winegrowers of Napa County and Napa Valley Grapegrowers opposing the measure.

“Our issue with this all along has been that ag should be the highest and best use of land, as the general plan states,” said Ryan Klobas of the Napa County Farm Bureau during the campaign.

Measure C opponents said Napa County has some of the strictest conservation laws in the nation. Supporters said they are not strict enough.

The opposition sent out a barrage of mailers claiming such things as Measure C would lead to more winery event centers and more traffic. Measure C supporters were outraged by what they saw as lies.

“That’s an insult to the citizens and voters of Napa Valley,” Hackett said. “They see through this flipped reality. There can only be one reality. There can be lots of opinions, but only one reality.”

Klobas said Measure C had no exemption to its oak-cutting cap for agriculture while still allowing oak removal for homes and event centers.

Into the mix stepped best-selling author James Conaway. He released “Napa at Last Light,” the latest book in his Napa trilogy, early in the year.

Conaway during a March Measure C forum said the county’s good laws were being changed or subverted by corrupt and spineless officials. He said the wine industry was making a mistake by opposing Measure C.

“This is a chance to show how much they care,” Conaway said. “They don’t have that much to lose; let’s face it, they don’t. The big boys in the organizations are the ones who want access to the hills.”

Voters had the final word in the June 5 election, with Measure C receiving 50.9 “no” votes and 49.1 “yes” votes for a close defeat.

“It’s hard for me to get past the fact that our opponents ran a campaign that essentially tricked voters into voting against their own best interests,” Hackett said in the election’s wake.

Klobas said the complicated Measure C issues shouldn’t be decided at the ballot box.

“I think that message resonated with people,” Klobas said. “Now that Measure C has been defeated, we can start the work of addressing issues with the Board of Supervisors, where these issues should have been addressed in the first place.”

That left county officials trying to pick up the pieces.

Supervisors launched a strategic effort to look at county priorities for the next three years. It held about 40 meetings on a variety of topics in the fall, including environmental issues.

County Executive Officer Minh Tran said bringing the community together over watershed and oak protection issues is a “Herculean task.”

“We must do this,” he said. “We all will continue to be living in the valley. Nobody is going anywhere. We all have to make it work.”

The Board of Supervisors also worked on its effort to deal with winery scofflaws that do such things as produce too much wine and entertain too many visitors. Critics for years have said that the county doesn’t adequately enforce its laws.

On Dec. 4, the Board passed a new policy. It set March 29 as the deadline for rule-breakers to voluntarily come forward and submit applications to revise their use permits.

If they do so, they can keep operating as they are until the Planning Commission decides their request, except for health and safety violations. After March 29, they must immediately comply with their permit for a year before having a Planning Commission hearing.

Planning, Building and Environmental Services Director David Morrison said the March 29 deadline creates a transition period to the stricter enforcement.

But Hackett called the new rules “a whitewash.” Grapegrower Yeoryios Apallas called them “papal absolution.” A roomful of citizens at the Dec. 4 meeting criticized the approach.

Supervisor Diane Dillon seemed taken aback by the response, given the Board had held several earlier meetings on the topic without the backlash. She also saw much of the criticism as being based on confusion as to what the new rules do.

“How have we gotten this far disconnected?” Dillon said during the meeting.

Trying to make the reconnections on wine country growth and enforcement issues is an effort that will continue into 2019.

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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.