Woodland Preservation Initiative

Proponents of an initiative to limit development in woodlands and watersheds submitted petitions to get the measure on the June ballot to the Election Office on Friday morning. Co-author of the initiative Jim Wilson, right, hands over boxes of signed petitions to Registrar of Voters John Tuteur, center, and Jennie Keener, assessment records assistant.

Proponents for a proposed oak woodland and watershed protection measure are hoping that the second time is the charm.

On Friday morning, they turned in more than 7,000 signatures to the county Election Division on a petition to qualify the measure for the June 5 ballot. They need about 3,800 to be from registered, local voters to succeed.

It seems like a slam dunk. And yet …

Last year, proponents collected enough valid signatures, only to have the measure disqualified on a technicality. County officials said the initiative referenced a county policy appendix, so signature gatherers should have carried that document with them in case potential signers wanted to read it.

That’s one bit of déjà vu that measure co-author Mike Hackett wants to avoid this time around. He noted that the new version doesn’t reference that county appendix on voluntary oak preservation practices.

“I’m optimistic,” he said with a smile as he, co-author Jim Wilson and other supporters submitted three cardboard boxes packed with signature forms.

Registrar of Voters John Tuteur will now examine the petitions to make certain enough signatures are valid. If he determines this is so, he will forward the measure to the county Board of Supervisors to place on the June 5 ballot.

Then an election battle will likely ensue between initiative supporters and opponents that include some segments of the wine industry.

Among other things, the measure would set a 795-acre limit of additional oak woodlands to be removed in the agricultural watershed. Once the limit is reached, property owners would in most cases have to obtain a county permit to cut down oak woodlands.

The county could issue the permit only in certain circumstances. Cutting down oak woodlands to make way for new vineyards is not among them.

In addition, the measure would require property owners to replace the lost oaks by a 3-1 ratio, instead of today’s 2-1 ratio. It would strengthen setbacks for development near streams in the agricultural watershed zoning area.

Hackett said assuring a good future for generations to come means retaining an ecological balance.

Napa Valley Grapegrowers recently joined Napa County Farm Bureau and Winegrowers of Napa County in opposing the measure. Napa Valley Vintners helped craft the measure, but later withdrew its support and has announced no further position.

The measure would effectively ban vineyard planting in the agricultural watershed, a Napa Valley Grapegrowers press release said. Enough proposed vineyards are presently in the pipeline to likely trip the 795-acre limit immediately, it said.

“Ag land in viable production is Napa County’s best case against encroaching development,” the press release said.

The Grapegrowers also said the measure’s focus on oaks would hurt other native tree species, such as madrones. That’s because property owners wanting to plant hillside vineyards could seek sites without oaks.

Hackett disagreed with the Grapegrowers’ conclusion that new hillside vineyard development would be immediately curtailed.

He noted that oak woodland removal approved before Sept. 1, 2017 wouldn’t be counted against the 795-acre total. He believes another 6,000 acres of vineyards can be developed, in part because not all of the watershed land has oak woodlands.

The wine industry in the long run might embrace the measure’s requirements, just as it has embraced the county’s agricultural preserve laws, Hackett said.

“This won’t hurt them,” he said. “It will only help them.”

But at this point, the Water, Forest and Oak Woodland Protection Initiative of 2018 is controversial. If it qualifies for the ballot, voters will likely witness a lively debate.

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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.