When long-time Napa resident Scott Espinoza, a 55-year-old California Department of Corrections employee, and his wife Jennifer Leslie bought a 2-acre parcel on North Kelly Road in southern Napa County in May, the couple had in mind a future of raising their chickens, goats and Leslie’s horse in relative peace.
Then the cannons started.
Residents like Espinoza in the lower reaches of the county are crying foul over a vineyard owner’s use of “bird cannons” — propane-powered devices emitting blasts similar to gunshots, sans the bullets.
Grape growers regularly use the cannons this time of the year, particularly in the Carneros region, as a means of keeping the area’s abundant birds at bay while their grapes ripen.
But the recurrent blasts have drawn the ire of vineyard neighbors, and in this, the latest chapter of the annual fracas, Espinoza and other residents on North Kelly Road are citing one local vineyard as the source of their disquiet.
Adding a darker side to the episode are neighbors’ suggestions of a “vendetta” on the part of the vineyard’s owner, rendering the blasts more as sonic salvos and less within the bounds of “good agricultural practices.”
“We think that it’s malicious,” said Espinoza, whose new property shares two fence lines with the 8-acre Noemi Vineyard owned by grapegrower Eleodoro Hernandez.
Neighbors say the vineyard’s cannons have been the source of blasts that, since at least July, have continued throughout the course of each day at varying intervals, from several blasts every hour to every few minutes to every 30 seconds.
Lee Acree, another North Kelly Road resident near the Noemi Vineyard, said he has also been perturbed by the noise. “If you were standing on my property, you would be shocked,” he said, adding that the blasts are “deafening, and that’s why we don’t go outside very much.”
Acree contends that beyond the use of the cannons, Hernandez “has a vendetta against the people around him and he’s pointing the cannons at our residents.”
Espinoza suspects the root of Hernandez’s alleged ill will stems from the grower’s inability to purchase the parcel that Espinoza now owns, due to a supposed dispute with the property’s former owner.
“And last year it was for the same reason,” said Acree, contending that Hernandez “wanted the properties around him” including what is now Espinoza’s parcel, “and they were sold to other people, and he’s very mad at us.”By Tuesday, Hernandez had not responded to repeated attempts to reach him via phone calls and email seeking comment on his use of cannons or any such vendetta. A reporter visited a listed home address and spoke with Noemi Hernandez, who said her husband, Eleodoro, was not home, but that he felt his use of the cannons was in compliance with Napa County ordinances, as county officials had visited the vineyard and had not told him to stop using them.
Neighbors contend that Napa’s right-to-farm ordinance has enabled Hernandez to carry out the high-volume volleys unchecked.
Intended as an educational tool, the right-to-farm ordinance is used “to notify people who are buying property adjacent to agricultural areas that agriculture involves certain kinds of activities,” said Napa County Agricultural Commissioner Greg Clark. Protected activities range from the use of tractors to discing, mowing and, in this case, bird control.
“And provided that those practices are consistent with good agricultural practices, they’re generally protected,” Clark said.
“The challenge is trying to balance the need of someone who’s farming, trying to bring a crop in to make a living doing what they do, versus the interests of those around them.”
Espinoza and Leslie began living on the property full-time two weeks ago and soon learned the bird cannon routine. Beginning “as early as 6:30 in the morning (Hernandez) starts setting the cannons off and sometimes they’re going off as late as 8 p.m. or after,” Espinoza said.
As the barrage has carried on over the past weeks, residents have taken their concerns to Clark and the county. While bird cannons are also currently being used in other areas of the Carneros region, Clark said he has not received any complaints apart from those of the North Kelly Road residents.
After fielding residents’ protests, Clark enlisted Jim Lincoln, vineyard manager for the down-county ranches of Beckstoffer Vineyards, and the duo visited Hernandez. Verifying that bird damage was occurring in Hernandez’s vineyard, Clark said he and Lincoln “talked about things (Hernandez) might want to try and he said he was going to do that.”
Lincoln, who tried using the cannons at an employer before working for Beckstoffer, said he does not think they keep birds away.
“And if you run them all day long, they’re particularly ineffective,” he said. “The birds are not dumb. They get wise to the fact that there’s really no danger there other than noise … So the grower that’s running them like that is just defeating the purpose and annoying the neighbors.”
Best practices would entail the cannons being used only for a few hours each day, in the morning and in the evening, the times when birds tend to feed, Lincoln said.
“But I find it offensive when a grower will just go out and start a cannon and just let it run all day,” he said. “I’ve even heard them out there running at night. And you know, that’s irresponsible.”
According to Clark, the county’s contact with Hernandez has been ongoing for several weeks. However, neighbors report the cannon blasts have persisted and continue to last throughout each day at the Noemi Vineyard.
During a reporter’s phone call with Espinoza from his property on Aug. 4, multiple blasts were overheard in succession at about 2:30 p.m. The Register also witnessed repeated blasts upon visiting Espinoza’s property last Thursday around 10 a.m.
Also enabling the cannons’ unlimited use, in addition to the right-to-farm ordinance, is the county’s lack of a bird cannon ordinance that would curb their usage. Such an ordinance exists in neighboring Solano County, where the number of bird cannons is capped per parcel size and their hours of operation are kept in check.
In Napa, however, Clark said, “What we’re trying to do is involve the industry and have those conversations with individuals as things arise and to try to have people be good neighbors.”
As for adopting any changes to the county’s regulations, he said, “It just doesn’t seem like a good use of resources to develop an ordinance because of one person. And I realize that the people who are experiencing this may think otherwise, but we will continue to try and find a way to address this. I understand the frustration of the neighbors out there. I really do.”
Now, as the cannons persist, the problem becomes a code enforcement issue with the county and may eventually evolve into a civil matter between Hernandez and his neighbors.
“He might have the right to farm,” Acree said of Hernandez. “But I don’t think he has the right to do what he’s doing. He’s misusing that device.”
“There’s no law,” he added. “There’s no Napa County law against those cannons and people like me and my neighbors might see to it that we do change that law.”
“Absolutely, he has the right to farm,” Espinoza said. “We have the right to farm. Everybody’s got the right. But we’ve got to find a way to peacefully coexist.”
“It’s only a few individuals that run these things like this and it gives the whole industry a bad name,” Lincoln said. “And we get it every year. People start them in July and you think, oh my gosh it’s going to be a long time ‘til harvest.”