Napa County Supervisors tried on Tuesday to strike a balance when dealing with a winery seeking to change its use permit after various violations.
They arrived at a slightly different answer for Reverie on Diamond Mountain Winery than the Planning Commission did in June. They intend to grant the winery less of what it sought –most notably, fewer visitors—but more than some observers wanted.
Granting retroactive approvals to wineries that break county rules has become controversial in recent years. Supervisors took a tentative vote on the Reverie issue, with a final vote to come on Dec. 8.
“There’s still is a perception out there that it’s easier to beg forgiveness in this county than it is to go forward with permission,” Supervisor Keith Caldwell said. “We have to really look at how we’re going to change that mindset.”
At the same time, some supervisors were wary about going too far down a punitive route. The county’s longstanding policy has been to work with wineries seeking to come into compliance with their use permits.
“I believe in our General Plan as it’s written today that puts agriculture as the highest and best use,” Supervisor Mark Luce said. “To be successful with that, we need successful businesses.”
Reverie Winery is located at 1530 Diamond Mountain Road southwest of Calistoga. A county staff report said the winery exceeded its county-approved wine production and visitation limits, and opened a cave and an outdoor tasting area without proper county permits.
The winery appeared before the Planning Commission in June seeking to modify its use permit. Among other things, it asked to increase its 5,000 gallons annual wine production limit and about 1,200 annual visitation limit approved by county in 1995.
The Planning Commission took the approach of not being punitive, but considering the requests on their own merits. It approved increasing wine production to 9,200 gallons annually and visitation to 10,200 annually, though this higher figure included marketing events and was to be phased in starting with 6,200 visitors over four years.
In addition, the commission allowed the caves to be used for production only, but not for visitors. It required Reverie to install a new onsite wastewater treatment system and do creek restoration.
Supervisors agreed to modify the commission’s decision. They want the annual visitation cap to be 5,640 people, including marketing events.
The board reached an unanimous tentative decision after almost an hour of discussion that included some routes not taken. Luce initially wanted to uphold the Planning Commission’s decision as written. Supervisor Alfredo Pedroza suggested having Reverie comply with its existing permit for a year, then seek changes under a comprehensive approach.
The board’s tentative vote drew mixed reactions.
“It’s not what we want, but we have to evaluate whether it allows us to survive and move forward, said attorney Scott Greenwood-Meinert on behalf of Reverie.
George Caloyannidis appealed the Planning Commission decision and wanted the board to make Reverie comply with its original use permit for three years before asking for changes. He called the board’s decision “disappointing.”
Supervisors heard various arguments before taking their tentative vote.
Caloyannidis compared the violations at Reverie to a child taking more cookies from a cookie jar than allowed. He cited a classroom exercise in which the students said a child doing this should not be allowed to keep the extra cookies.
“In the name of fairness, the ill-gotten gains need to be put into the cookie jar in the form of penalties,” he said.
Greenwood-Meinert said the county scrutinized the Reverie proposals.
“The Planning Commission was reasonable,” he said. “They were fair. They were, to a certain degree, tortured by this. They weighed every aspect of this project.”
Mike Hackett asked supervisors to send a new message that it’s no longer business as usual. If the county simply changes use permits to allow for past violations, wineries have no incentive to follow the rules, he said. He noted citizens brought these issues up at the county’s March 10 county growth forum attended by a few hundred people.
“Are you listening?” he asked the Board of Supervisors.
St. Helena attorney Lester Hardy said the county’s policy of encouraging voluntary compliance by working with wineries to modify use permits has been in place for 25 years. That policy was rooted in careful deliberations and appears to have served the county well. A change in that policy should be done only after the same type of deliberations, he said.
Lonnie Smith of Lonnie’s Wine Tours defended the Reverie requests.
“I believe the Napa Valley’s entire economy depends on wineries,” he said. “If they weren’t here, none of us would be here.”