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Walt Ranch Protest

About 100 people on Nov. 18 protested the Walt Ranch development.

Napa County in 2016 saw heated growth wars involving not ever-expanding subdivisions threatening to pave over the landscape, but multiplying wineries and vineyards.

These are growth wars, Napa-style. They focus on the world-famous wine industry that is the county’s economic life blood and source of immense local pride, even among many who fear Napa is getting too much of a good thing.

With vacant space on the Napa Valley floor hard to come by, vineyard projects are increasingly targeted for the adjacent mountains. Some citizens see this as an attack on the region’s oak forests and the watersheds that drain into reservoirs for local cities.

The result was two land-use battles royal – Walt Ranch and the proposed watershed protection ballot initiative.

Craig and Kathryn Hall of HALL Wine in St. Helena are the driving force behind the Walt Ranch project. They have tried since 2008 to win county approval to create a few hundred acres of vineyards on the 2,300-acre property in the mountains between Napa and Lake Berryessa.

But a power couple who have entertained Bill and Hillary Clinton struggled to sell the project to opponents. The Napa Sierra Club said creating the vineyards means cutting down thousands of trees and hurting wildlife habitat. The neighboring, rural Circle Oaks community said irrigating vineyards could sap the community’s wells.

A massive environmental impact report done for the county concluding that Walt Ranch, with mitigation steps, would have no significant impacts failed to convince skeptics.

Opponents took their message to the street. There was weekend picketing at HALL Wine. About 100 protesters on Nov. 18 showed up for a peaceful rally in front of the downtown Napa County Administration Building, holding signs with such messages as “no chainsaw wines.”

Protester Jim Wilson said the opponents are citizens “who are standing up to hillside degradation, deforestation and water degradation.”

Craig Hall expressed surprise by the opposition he’s encountered over the past few years.

“At its basic, Walt vineyard is a vineyard in an agriculturally zoned area,” he said.

County staff in August granted Walt Ranch an erosion control plan, though it shrunk the vineyard block acreage to 209 acres. Opponents appealed to the Board of Supervisors, which after three days and 11 hours of hearings tentatively ruled in favor of Walt Ranch on Dec. 6.

“I think the applicant has met what we set out as the ground rules and I think in a lot of cases has gone beyond,” Supervisor Brad Wagenknecht said.

Another flash point came when local environmentalists tried to qualify a ballot measure they said would protect oak woodlands and watersheds. The measure called for limiting how many oaks can be removed from properties and increasing stream setbacks.

“We’re trying to enhance the protections that are already in the General Plan,” ballot measure proponent Mike Hackett said. “Nothing radical here.”

Napa Valley Vintners, Napa County Farm Bureau, Wine Growers of Napa County and Napa Valley Grapegrowers—the combined muscular might of the wine and agricultural sectors – saw things differently. They released a joint letter criticizing the proposed ballot measure.

Rex Stults of Napa Valley Vintners called the measure “backward-looking” and “anti-farming.”

Proponents gathered more than 6,200 signatures at shopping centers, far more than the 3,700 needed to qualify the initiative for the Nov. 8 ballot. An Election Day showdown loomed.

Then Registrar of Voters John Tuteur in early June disqualified the measure on a technicality a few days before the Board of Supervisors was scheduled to place it on the ballot.

That led to a battle in Napa County Superior Court as opponents tried to overturn the decision. Judge Diane Price sided with the county and the initiative remained off the ballot.

“Watersheds are essential for clean and abundant water for farming, people and wildlife,” Hackett said in the wake of the decision. “People should have the opportunity to vote on matters affecting their health. This is one of those times.”

Those wanting to change Napa County’s environmental policies also had a different type of electoral opportunity in 2016. Two candidates with strong environmental bents ran against incumbent Supervisor Alfredo Pedroza in June for the 4th District seat.

Pedroza raised $200,000 in campaign funds, with big contributions coming from the wine industry, though Pedroza said the only connection he has to the wine industry is his father was a farm worker and that he remains independent. Pedroza, who didn’t call for big changes in county environmental policies, won with 56 percent of the vote.

Another vineyard battle involved the already approved Bremer Family Winery vineyards in Deer Park Road in the mountains east of St. Helena. The Bremers are trucking in soil from such places as the Napa Valley floor along the Napa River to create vineyards in an area with rocky ground.

But the county since 2015 has disputed whether the Bremers have followed all of their permit requirements involving stream setbacks and other issues. This summer, the county halted work on this soil importation operation and worked with the Bremers to try to resolve the situation.

Not all wine country expansion proposals caused controversy. The type of new winery most likely to win quick county Planning Commission approval tended to be a small, family-owned operation that asked for no exceptions to county rules.

Napa County’s environmental battles went beyond wineries and vineyards. County supervisors held more than 11 hours of hearings over the controversial Syar quarry expansion near southeast Napa before granting approval. Opponents are suing the county.

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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.