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How to best protect oak-covered hills and handle winery and tourism growth are issues sparking disagreement among candidates for the Napa County Board of Supervisors in June.

Eight candidates competing for three seats attended a Monday evening environmental forum at the Napa County Library sponsored by Friends of the Napa River, the local Sierra Club chapter, Napa Valley CanDo and Get a Grip on Growth.

The proposed Water, Forest and Oak Woodland Protection Initiative targeted for the November ballot draws a line among the candidates. It would limit how many oaks can be cleared for hillside vineyards and increase buffers for hillside streams. Such groups as Napa Valley Vintners and the Napa County Farm Bureau oppose it.

Competing for the 2nd District supervisors seat are five-term incumbent Mark Luce, business consultant Derek Anderson, civil engineer Ryan Gregory and long-time local political observer James Hinton.

Luce recalled two 2004 efforts to pass local stream setback initiatives that failed, which, in turn, sparked a 2006 property rights initiative that also failed. He viewed these efforts as divisive and sees the proposed Water, Forest and Oak Woodland Protection Initiative in the same light.

Napa County already has conservation laws, Luce said to a packed room that generally seemed to support the initiative.

“I think we should just put all this to rest,” Luce said. “We have plenty of standards in front of us. There’s no reason to bring this in front of the population. It will only bring an angry debate.”

Hinton said he’s collected more than 400 signatures standing in front of local stores to help qualify the initiative for the ballot. He drew applause when he said he’ll be out there every day collecting signatures, perhaps even after the forum.

“I disagree with Mark Luce. There are not enough regulations,” Hinton said.

As an example, he pointed to the proposed Walt Ranch vineyard development in the hills between Napa and Lake Berryessa that he said would “mow down” 28,000 trees.

Walt Ranch has become a flashpoint in hillside development disputes. The latest, trimmed-down version would create about 271 acres of vineyards, cut down 24,000 trees and mitigate with such steps as permanently protecting 551 acres of woodlands and 213,000 trees.

Gregory said Napa County’s conservation laws are complicated but effective when applied consistently. Hillside vineyard applications are the hardest applications to make in Napa County and will remain so, he said.

“While I agree with the fundamentals of what we’re trying to do, I don’t believe we should do this by ballot box,” Gregory said.

Anderson said Napa County has enough regulations and until it starts enforcing them consistently, it’s hard to say more are needed. Still, he signed the petition to qualify the watershed initiative for the ballot.

“I think it’s important to have the discussion. I think it’s important the public has its voice,” Anderson said. “I don’t have to be right on everything. I can listen to your opinions.”

The 4th District race pits former Napa City Councilman Alfredo Pedroza against county mental health counselor and long-time local environmental advocate Chris Malan and Napa Vision 2050 member Diane Shepp.

Shepp said Napa County must protect its watersheds.

“Our watersheds are our source of the most pristine and reliable water we have, that we can drink, for all of our residents—for the city of Napa residents, for rural residents and for agriculture,” Shepp said.

Pedroza said obtaining an erosion control plan in Napa County for hillside vineyards is hard, while one can be obtained over-the-counter in Sonoma County. Two trees are required to replace a tree that is cut down. A water availability analysis is required.

“When I talk about that, I see that we’re doing enough to address the concerns we all have,” Pedroza said. “Now if that’s not working, let’s talk about what’s not working. But to this day, I believe the amount of regulations we have on the book is addressing the root issue.”

Malan disagreed.

“I’m proud to say I’m one of the authors of the Water, Forest and Oak Woodland Protection Initiative,” Malan said, then added with enthusiasm, “I support it!”

The county’s conservation rules don’t conserve, but instead say what must be done after the land is deforested, Malan said. The rules address erosion control, she said.

“This initiative will protect the forests, because we don’t have anything else that does,” Malan said.

Belia Ramos, an American Canyon City Councilwoman and only candidate for the 5th District seat, opposes the initiative. She said the county needs to reach a common understanding of its existing regulations and enforce them.

“Until such point that everyone is compliant, how dare we add more regulation and more complexity, and for what?” Ramos said. “To create again an environment that is just causing hostility.”

The candidates addressed the hot-button issue of whether winery and tourism growth threaten to overwhelm the county. Malan said the county has more than 400 wineries and 53 applications for wineries.

“One has got to take a pause,” Malan said. “We have to think about where we’re going, what we’re doing. We’ve got families we’re trying to raise here. We have communities that have to live side-by-side with the industry – and we want to.”

But there needs to be some controls, given the traffic jams, air pollution, groundwater depletion and deforestation. The next step should be growth controls on wineries, Malan said.

Shepp talked about what she called “crowd control.” The county doesn’t want to discourage people from coming here, but must plan how they get around and where they go.

“I would definitely encourage the tasting centers and hospitality activities to be in the municipalities where they belong,” she said.

Pedroza said small wineries are no longer finding distributors for wine and must sell directly to consumers. They must create unique experiences to attract visitors.

“These small wineries, to me, make up the best stewards of our land,” he said. “They care about their neighbors. They are responsible about managing their resources.”

Pedroza said he understands Napa County faces limits, and he doesn’t want to see Highway 29 or Silverado Trail widened in the valley to handle more traffic. He, too, endorsed having more events in the cities, but added it will take leadership to make this happen. He pointed to City Winery in Napa as a failed attempt that shows the challenges to reaching this goal.

The candidates addressed the traffic issue, prompting Hinton and Gregory to criticize the quality of Napa County’s road pavement on Luce’s watch. Hinton said he might buy a realignment shop if Luce is re-elected.

Luce replied that the county is not responsible for potholes in the cities, only in rural areas. The state has cut back money for street maintenance. The county is contributing general fund money to improve road quality as a ramp-up to the local Measure T tax money for roads that will start flowing in 2018.

That general fund contribution could reach $3.1 million next fiscal year, a county report said.

Gregory responded that the county has unincorporated pockets within the city of Napa that have bad roads. He contended this discourages the city from annexing these areas.

“You can’t draw a wall around the city and the county once you’re elected … that’s what we’ve got to change,” Gregory said.

Hinton called for using some of the transient occupancy tax for roads, as well as sewers and other infrastructure. The 12-percent tax on hotel beds brings the county about $11 million annually for its general fund.

“The American standard of living has steadily declined,” Hinton said. “I believe we can shoulder some of the burden with this transient occupancy tax.”

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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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