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Watershed vs. wine

Opponents of the Walt Ranch development protested in September in front of HALL winery on Highway 29. Supervisors are scheduled to rule on the project on Dec. 6.

Napa County supervisors should rule Dec. 6 on a Walt Ranch project that proponents say merely involves planting vineyards on agriculturally zoned land and opponents call a threat to habitat and water.

The Walt Ranch meeting saga will be a trilogy. On Tuesday, the Board of Supervisors wrapped up the second day of hearings that have totaled nine hours.

The latest session ended at about 1:30 p.m. after three hours and with the Board poised for deliberations. Walt Ranch proponents took up the bulk of the time on this day, a change from Friday’s hearing when opponents had the spotlight.

“I want to say thanks again to both the appellants and applicant for your professionalism and courtesy,” Board Chairman Alfredo Pedroza said after the Board had heard from the various parties.

But the Board didn’t begin its deliberations because county staff and consultants want to return on Dec. 6 with clarifications to points that have emerged during the Walt Ranch hearings.

At stake is whether 209 acres of vineyard blocks and a total of 316 acres of disturbed land can be created on the 2,300-acre Walt Ranch. The ranch is along Highway 121 in the mountains separating the city of Napa and Lake Berryessa.

County Planning, Building and Environmental Services Director David Morrison last summer issued an erosion control permit for the Walt Ranch. Four appeals were filed, bringing the issue to the Board of Supervisors.

Spearheading the Walt Ranch project are Craig and Kathryn Hall of HALL Wines in St. Helena. Craig Hall defended the project on Tuesday, pointing to changes made to it over several years to meet various concerns. Among other things, the amount of proposed disturbed land dropped from 538 acres to 316 acres.

“We don’t want to be bad neighbors,” Craig Hall told supervisors. “We don’t want to just shove this down somebody’s throat.”

Nearly 2,000 acres of Walt Ranch would remain as open space, with 660 acres being preserved with conservation easements removing development rights, he said. Vineyards would cover only 9 percent of the property.

“We have been—I guess naively so—surprised by the level of angst this project has caused some people,” Craig Hall said.

Creating Walt Ranch vineyards would mean cutting down more than 14,000 trees. But Mike Reynolds on behalf of the project said that this is only 6 percent of the trees on the property, with more than 221,000 trees remaining.

By way of comparison, Reynolds said, this would be similar to removing four of the 70 chairs in the Board of Supervisors chamber.

“We all appreciate oak woodlands, but there is a balance and we think the project achieves that,” Tom Adams said on behalf of Walt Ranch.

State guidelines say an environmental impact report should generally be about 300 pages, Whit Manley told supervisors on behalf of Walt Ranch. The Walt Ranch report was more than 1,100 pages, with another 1,100 pages of technical appendices.

Also, state guidelines say the environmental impact report process should take no longer than a year. The Walt Ranch report has taken eight years to process.

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“All of this for a vineyard,” Manley said.

Walt Ranch officials disputed claims made during Friday’s hearing by appellants that the project could deplete groundwater and harm wildlife habitat for rare species such as the California red-legged frog.

Then the project opponents rebutted the Walt Ranch rebuttals. The appellants are Napa Sierra Club, Center for Biological Diversity, Living Rivers Council and, in a joint appeal, Circle Oaks County Water District and Circle Oaks Homes Association.

Several appellants said the Walt Ranch is in a biological diversity hot spot. They asked the Board of Supervisors to protect the wildlife habitat by keeping it from being fragmented by the proposed vineyard blocks.

“You can play a crucial role in preserving Napa’s legacy for future generations,” John Rose of the Center for Biological Diversity told supervisors.

Supervisors made only a few comments. Supervisor Brad Wagenknecht wanted more information on how mechanically preparing soils for vineyards affects rainwater soaking into the ground. Walt Ranch proponents say that the deep soil ripping will increase infiltration permanently, which means less runoff.

Much debate has centered on whether the Walt Ranch will draw down groundwater and possibly hurt the wells that the neighboring, rural community of Circle Oaks depends on. Supervisor Mark Luce said there may be another variable in calculating water use.

Perhaps, Luce speculated, the vineyards will use less water than the 14,000 trees targeted from removal. That puts water use by oaks on the list for further exploration before Dec. 6.

Supervisor Keith Caldwell wanted more information on greenhouse gases created by the project, particularly by whatever disposal method will be chosen for the 14,000 trees.


Napa County Reporter

Barry Eberling covers Napa County government, transportation, the environment and general assignments. He was worked for the Napa Valley Register since fall 2014 and previously worked 27 years for the Daily Republic of Fairfield. He is a graduate of UC Sa