A year-long winery dispute has ended – barring any legal challenges—with the Napa County Board of Supervisors’ tentative approval of the proposed Woolls Ranch Winery in the Mount Veeder area.
Supervisors held a rare Saturday meeting to take up the issue. More than 70 people were present when the meeting began at 9 a.m., though only about half the number remained when it ended at 2:45 p.m.
Paul and Betty Woolls want to build a 50,000-gallons-a-year winery on 236 acres at 1032 Mount Veeder Road, in the Mayacamas Mountains west of the city of Napa. The Board of Supervisors unanimously turned down an appeal of a Planning Commission decision approving the project. It will take a final vote on its findings on Jan. 13.
“All and all, I feel we’ve really studied this,” Board Chairman Mark Luce said as the hearing wrapped up.
Several supervisors noticed an undercurrent in the proceedings that they thought went beyond the Woolls Ranch Winery proposal. One issue brought up during public comments is the question of whether Napa County is allowing too many wineries and vineyards in the wrong places.
“There is a groundswell – also known as a grassroots effort – in Napa County where many people are very upset with the expansion of the wine industry into the wildlands of our watersheds, causing significant harm,” Atlas Peak resident Chris Malan told supervisors. “You should be protecting us from this kind of harm.”
Supervisor Diane Dillon later said Napa County needs to have the bigger discussion. But without agriculture, Napa County’s lands become valuable for housing, she said. She cautioned what might happen if the county stops allowing agriculture as an active and sustainable land use.
The Woolls Ranch project had critics. Patricia Simpson appealed to the Board of Supervisors after a November 2013 decision by the Planning Commission approving the project. The issue has taken so long to resolve in part because the county wanted to do further study.
Simpson owns the property next to Woolls Ranch and, though she no longer lives there, her daughter’s family live there.
Once again, water is an issue when it comes to producing wine. Maureen Harrington, who represented Simpson, said two of three springs providing water to the Simpson property have gone dry since the Woolls put in a vineyard. This didn’t happen during past droughts.
“There’s already been a serious and apparently irreversible impact on the natural springs that for decades have provided water for Mrs. Simpsons’ property,” Harrington told supervisors.
Harrington also contended that an easement over Simpson’s project providing access to Woolls Ranch is to serve a home, not winery visitation traffic. That amount of traffic entering and leaving the driveway would be dangerous for drivers on adjacent Redwood Road and Mount Veeder Road, she said.
Representatives for the Woolls project disputed the claims by Simpson that vineyard water use is the reason the springs have gone dry. They took the position that disputes over water and the easement belong in the courts, if Simpson thinks that she has been wronged.
Paul Woolls said his team had done everything it can to give the county science instead of anecdotes.
“We’ve complied with the rules,” Paul Woolls told supervisors. “It’s time for us to get started and create this wonderful, wonderful opportunity for the Napa Valley.”
Supervisor Keith Caldwell mentioned a hydrologist report showing that enough water is available and asked what happens if the report is wrong. He noted that changing climate conditions might mean less rain in the future than in the past.
“Can I tell you with 100-percent certainty that this report accurately reflects groundwater?” Planning, Building and Environmental Services Director David Morrison said. “No, I can’t. And neither can anybody else.”
Should water supplies be less than anticipated in coming years, the Woolls Ranch Winery would have to reduce operations to match the available yields, Morrison said. This could mean having fewer visitors or taking out some of the vineyards, he said.
Luce had some parting advice for those involved in the Woolls Ranch dispute.
“It seems there are some undercurrents here that suggest that not everything will be resolved with our decision today,” he said. “I hope it is, because it’s in everybody’s interest to get along.”