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Acres upon acres of vineyards interspersed with wineries is a classic vision of Napa County agriculture, but what about tourist-drawing winery marketing events?

Napa County planning commissioners on Wednesday got down to basics and addressed the definition of agriculture. They continued vetting recommendations recently made by the Agricultural Protection Advisory Committee (APAC).

“This is huge,” St. Helena resident Geoff Ellsworth told the commission. “The definition of the word ‘agriculture’ is the bedrock on which we’ve built our community and the foundation of zoning.”

Commissioners are urging the county Board of Supervisors to clarify the definition found in the 2008 county General Plan. They want to make it clear that wine marketing and sales are important parts of agriculture, but that such farming endeavors as growing grapes come first in the hierarchy.

To Commissioner Anne Cottrell, having a clear definition of agriculture is part of a long public discussion that is going on.

“It’s really about appropriate intensity use,” Cottrell said. “How much marketing is too much marketing?”

Some people are afraid that wineries are on the path to becoming entertainment centers. Others see wineries as needing flexibility to be competitive in a changing market so they can succeed economically, a key to protecting farmland.

The definition of agriculture as found in the 2008 version of the county General Plan has become part of the discussion.

“ ‘Agriculture’ is defined as the raising of crops, trees, and livestock; the production and processing of agricultural products; and related marketing, sales and other accessory uses,” the 2008 General Plan says. “Agriculture also includes farm management businesses and farm worker housing.”

During its discussion on how to protect agriculture, the Agricultural Protection Advisory Committee used this definition. Some groups, including the Napa County Farm Bureau, see the definition as flawed because it would seem to make wine making, marketing and sales efforts equal to farming.

Another part of the General Plan – the next paragraph, in fact—says that wineries are conditional uses and marketing and other activities are subordinate and incidental. Still, some residents want more clarity in the main definition.

“It’s long overdue we have a definition that’s consistent,” said Eve Kahn of Get a Grip on Growth.

Attorney Todd Wenzel of the Napa-based law firm Gaw Van Male recommended that the definition be clarified.

“I just see where applicants could rest their application on the board’s definition of agriculture and say, ‘We’re automatically entitled to marketing event sales of wine goods as part of our agricultural operation,’” he told commissioners. ”I could see fights between neighbors.”

Dan Mufson of community group Vision 2050, asked what type of agriculture the county is protecting. He showed pictures of a movie being shown in a vineyard, a concert and dinner being held in a winery cave and high-end cars being sold in the agriculture preserve.

Others see farming, wine-making and art as linked. This grouping allows wineries to thrive and keeps away housing subdivisions from farmland, they said.

Rex Stults of the Napa Valley Vintners advised the county to be cautious about changing the General Plan, which he called the county’s version of the Constitution.

“This is a key element in our General Plan,” he said. “It’s sort of like a sweater. If you have a thread dangling from a sweater and you yank it, how does it affect the sweater?”

After two hours, Commissioners Heather Phillips, Terry Scott and Cottrell voted to recommend that the Board of Supervisors clarify the agriculture definition. They want the definition to state that related marketing, sales and other accessory uses at wineries are incidental and subordinates uses.

Such uses are incidental, but necessary, and are becoming more necessary as the global marketplace grows more competitive, Scott said.

Commissioners Michael Basayne and Jeri Gill are not participating in the Planning Commission’s discussions of APAC recommendations because of possible conflicts of interest.

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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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