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Pope Valley luxury campsite proposal hits snag

Owners of Aetna Springs suffered a setback in their quest to create a luxury campground resort with upscale lodging tents in Napa County's rural Pope Valley.

Alchemy Resorts in late 2018 bought 3,100 acres in Pope Valley east of Napa Valley. The 672-acre, historic, former Aetna Springs resort was only part of the $22 million deal for 50 parcels.

As it turns out, the first proposal to emerge from all of this isn’t for the land with the now-vacant Aetna Springs buildings. Rather, it is for Turkey Hill about three miles away. The idea is to create a resort with 40 lodging tents, perhaps expanding to 80.

But the venture as proposed needs the help of the Napa County Regional Park and Open Space District to navigate county zoning that prioritizes agriculture. Aetna Springs ownership offered a deal that would bring money to the cash-strapped district.

On Monday, a divided Open Space District Board of Directors declined to pursue the private-public partnership, though it took no official vote.

"I feel it is only fair to you to make it clear this project is not a priority in my eyes for the district," Director Karen Bower-Turjanis told David Wickline of the Aetna Springs ownership.

Wickline said he first brought up the Turkey Hill idea to former Open Space District General Manager John Woodbury in 2018. He more recently presented papers to the district that fleshed out his ideas.

Running the resort operation would be Six Senses. Among the company’s resorts are Six Senses Zil Pasyon on the private island of Felicite in the Seychelles archipelago, Six Senses Kaplankaya on Turkey’s Aegean coastline, Six Senses Fuji and Sixth Senses Zighy Bay in Oman.

Sixth Senses Aetna Springs is proposed to be added to that list. Papers submitted to the district described a resort with tents that include family suites, a cabin with lounge and dining, sauna, hot plunge, cold plunge, labyrinth, star gazing huts, and fitness circuits.

Napa County zoning doesn't allow private interests to create this type of campsite on private land, district reports said. The county has long stressed protecting agriculture. Part of Turkey Hill has been used for grazing.

That’s where the Open Space District might come in. The district can open campgrounds on its own lands with the approval of the county Planning Commission.

The Aetna Springs group proposes to donate 100 acres at Turkey Hill to the Open Space District. The Open Space District would then lease the land back to Aetna Springs for 99 years for 1% of the resort's lodging revenues.

Aetna Springs would guarantee rent of $1 million over the first 10 years. It foresees the venture generating $20 million for Napa County in 10 years in transient occupancy and sales taxes, said papers presented to the district.

It would also place conservation easements on 100 acres near the Cleary Reserve and 730 acres at Lake Luciana near the district’s Spanish Valley property. Wickline said that will allow better access to existing open space,  better trails and better public enjoyment of the area.

"What animates me is the opportunity we have to create something really quite special out here in Pope Valley," Wickline said. 

Woodbury and Wickline talked about the idea off-and-on for a couple of years.

"I think you all know I'm very willing to be creative, and I've been very motivated from the beginning to find ways to fund this district in a permanent, sustainable way," Woodbury told the District Board of Directors on Monday.

But Woodbury didn't think the Aetna Springs group offered enough conservation benefits. Some areas to be preserved from development are flood plains and steep hills. Aetna Springs hasn't reduced the overall number of possible building sites and developable parcels, he said.

Open Space District General Manager Chris Cahill offered several points for the Board of Directors to consider. Among them was whether the Turkey Hill proposal fits the spirit of the district's ability to have campgrounds on rural, county lands.

"I arrive at a question, what is a campground?" Cahill said. "And is the thing that's being proposed on Turkey Hill, the thing that's described in Mr. Wickline's submittal, a campground?"

Several residents spoke against the Turkey Hill proposal. Elaine de Man said undertaking such a venture would cost the district support in its attempts to pass a county open space sales tax.

"I am afraid you will lose all that local goodwill and support when the voters find out you are even considering partnering with a luxury resort developer who appears to have found a way to chip away at the protections offered by ag watershed by dangling a few little carrots in front of your noses," she said.

Resident Eve Kahn said the luxury campground proposal is inconsistent with land uses in the agricultural watershed and open space zones.

"Please refrain from any further discussions on a development partnership that would put the district in financial jeopardy and, more importantly, in jeopardy of violating the public trust," she said.

District directors Brent Randol and Nancy Heliotes appeared willing to at least let Wickline further develop his ideas.

"There's a 50% chance this probably won't even get through at county level," Randol said "But I kind of feel we owe it to Mr. Wickline — it's his capital; it's his risk — to run the process."

But directors Bower-Turjanis, Tony Norris and Barry Christian showed no immediate interest in pursuing the matter.

Whether Wickline can still find a way to make a Turkey Hill resort a reality remains to be seen. The Napa Valley Register asked him that question after the meeting.

"I have no idea," he said.

Napa County's Open Space District wants to use its The Cove property for a trailhead to the top of Mount Veeder.

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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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