Hours of public hearings on the proposed Melka Winery near St. Helena culminated with a tie vote by the county Board of Supervisors in an appeals case giving project proponents a victory.
“It’s been a long, arduous, uphill battle to have a very small winery,” Cherie Melka said as she left Tuesday’s meeting.
Opponents saw something at stake beyond perceived flaws with the Melka Winery proposal. Former county supervisor and Get a Grip on Growth co-founder Ginny Simms talked about the county needing to value laws protecting agriculture and scenery.
“We cannot tolerate any further erosion of the protections we worked so hard to get,” Simms said.
Philippe and Cherie Melka want to build a 10,000-gallons-a-year winery on 10.7 acres at 2900 Silverado Trail north of Deer Park Road. They won Planning Commission approval on March 4 after two long public hearings.
Simms appealed the Planning Commission decision to the Board of Supervisors on multiple counts. They ranged from complaints about how the county handled information on the project during commission hearings to the planned location of winery buildings a couple hundred feet from Silverado Trail.
After a five-hour hearing Tuesday, the Board of Supervisors told staff to prepare papers upholding the Planning Commission approval for the winery. It did so by a 2-2 vote, meaning the appeal failed to garner the majority vote needed to pass.
Supervisors Diane Dillon and Alfredo Pedroza voted to deny the appeal and allow the winery to be built. Supervisors Brad Wagenknecht and Keith Caldwell voted in favor of the appeal. Supervisor Mark Luce was out of town.
The board will take a final vote at a future meeting once its reasoning has been set down in writing. Luce will be unable to vote then since he did not take part in Tuesday’s hearing.
One part of Simms’ appeal focused on the Planning Commission decision to grant Melka Winery an exception to the county road setback rule. No new wineries are supposed to be built within 600 feet of a major road. Melka Winery is to be located within a couple hundred feet of Silverado Trail.
Several speakers said the setback rule protects views in Napa Valley by preventing a Winery Row effect along roads.
County rule exceptions – called variances – have become a hot-button topic. Napa County Farm Bureau in a letter said the county over five years has granted road setback variances for 16 of 35 new winery applications.
Napa County hands out variances “like candy,” Farm Bureau President Norma Tofanelli told supervisors.
Planning, Building and Environmental Services Director David Morrison reframed the issue by lengthening the time span and including winery modifications. Since January 2006 at the advent of the updated General Plan, the county has had 176 winery applications and granted 30 variances, he said.
The Melkas claimed adhering to the 600-foot rule would mean building a winery on a steep hill and removing trees. The Planning Commission decided that building closer to Silverado Trail is a better alternative.
Caldwell was unconvinced a variance is warranted.
“Not every 10-acre parcel in Napa County is appropriate for a winery,” Caldwell said.
Wagenknecht had concerns about both the variance and an earlier lot line adjustment that gave the Melkas the land they needed to meet the 10-acre minimum requirement for new wineries.
“I agree the site that’s been chosen is a better site than the 600 feet up the hill,” Wagenknecht said. “But I’m struggling with when it is appropriate to say ‘no’ for a variance and what is my threshold for doing that.”
Pedroza supported the project with the provision that the Melkas add a left-turn lane to Silverado Trail for safety reasons.
“I look at what they’re trying to do and I believe they’re trying to do what’s right for the land and what’s right for Napa County,” Pedroza said.
Philippe Melka expressed surprise and sadness about the opposition that arose to his project. He told supervisors he grew up in the wine business, and that he and Cherie Melka have worked hard to try to create a place of their own to make wine.
“We’re not terrorists,” Melka said.
Supervisors could have continued the Melka Winery issue until Luce was present to cast a tie-breaking vote. They tried to find a future agenda when they could fit the matter in, but that proved cumbersome and Caldwell proposed voting on the issue Tuesday to settle the issue.
“I’ve made my statement,” Caldwell said. “Supervisor Wagenknecht has made his statement. If that’s the end of it, that’s the end of it.”
After the meeting, Simms said she believes that supervisors now understand they must pay more attention to the care of county ordinances and policies.
“I hope they heard that,” Simms said. “If they didn’t, we’ll have to tell them again.”