Oak removal permit program in Watershed Initiative (copy)

John Tuteur, Napa County registrar of voters, said the proposed oak woodland/watershed initiative has enough signatures to qualify for the June ballot.

County Registrar of Voters John Tuteur said on Thursday that a proposed “Watershed and Oak Woodland Protection Initiative” has enough petition signatures to qualify for the June 5 ballot.

Also, Tuteur said proposed ballot measures to ban new personal-use heliports and to allow Blakeley Construction to continue operating near Calistoga also have enough petition signatures to qualify for the June 5 ballot. Each petition needed at least 3,792 signatures from registered, local voters.

In addition, County Counsel’s Office has advised that the Oak Woodland petition language is sufficient. That latter point is significant. In 2016, the county disqualified a previous version of the watershed and oak woodland initiative from the ballot on a technicality.

The Napa County Board of Supervisors will take the next step on Jan. 30. The Board can place the initiative on the ballot, adopt it or order county staff to analyze its possible impacts.

If supervisors choose the analysis route, they would receive a report at later date, then decide whether to place the initiative on the ballot or adopt it.

The watershed initiative has been controversial since the idea surfaced in January 2016. Proponents in the environmental community dispute the notion that the measure is anti-agriculture.

“We’re just slowing the removal of oak trees in our watershed,” initiative co-author Mike Hackett said. “We’re not stopping ag.”

But Napa Valley Vintners said the initiative could have unintended consequences for agriculture.

That marks a turnaround for Napa Valley Vintners. In September, the group representing more than 500 vintners said it had worked with Hackett and Jim Wilson to co-author a watershed and oak woodland ballot measure that should gain widespread support.

John Tuteur


Instead, the move prompted a backlash from other wine industry groups. Napa Valley Vintners soon withdrew support for the initiative and called for community collaboration. Last week, the Napa Valley Vintners Board of Directors voted to oppose the initiative.

Rex Stults of Napa Valley Vintners said the group held a meeting for members in early January during which attorneys both for and against the initiative stated their positions. That discussion revealed some legal uncertainties, he said.

For example, he pointed to a proposed 795-acre limit on oak woodland removal in the agricultural-watershed zoning district. Once that limit is reached, people wanting to remove oak woodlands in local hills and mountains would have to obtain a county permit. The county couldn’t issue permits for new vineyard development.

Napa Valley Vintners in September saw that limit as allowing new hillside vineyards to be planted through at least 2030, the life of the county’s 2008 General Plan. Now the group apparently isn’t so certain in the wake of Atlas, Nuns and Tubbs wildfires that last October burned thousands of acres.

Oak woodlands removed after September 2017 are to be included in that 795-acre total that trips the limit.

Napa County, PG&E and private landowners have been removing fire-damaged trees, including oaks. Stults said different attorneys disagree over whether these fire-damaged oak removals would count toward the 795-acre limit.

The wildfires are “a cause for pause,” Stults said.

But Hackett disagreed that fire-damaged trees removed for safety reasons count toward the 795-acre oak woodland removal limit.

“Absolutely not,” Hackett said. “That was an act of God. Those have to be taken down.”

Hackett said a schism exists in the wine industry over whether to support or oppose the watershed and oak woodland initiative. A small subset that prefers the status quo determined the Napa Valley Vintners position, he said.

“A subset of this group does not want any restrictions, either now or in the future,” Hackett said.

In coming weeks, a number of vintners and grape growers will publicly announce support of the initiative, he said.

Stults said Napa Valley Vintners members who expressed opinions on the proposed ballot measure were “overwhelmingly but not entirely” opposed to it. Napa Valley Vintners is showing democracy in action.

“I don’t think it means we’re not passionate about or concerned about the environment,” Stults said. “I think our legacy there is pretty well-founded.”

He said the association hasn’t yet decided whether to spend money to oppose the watershed and oak woodland ballot measure.

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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.