A Napa County Superior Court judge on Tuesday issued a written tentative ruling favoring Napa County’s approval of the controversial Walt Ranch vineyard project.
That’s not the end of the case, though. Judge Thomas Warriner later heard oral arguments from the various parties and the tentative ruling need not match the yet-to-be-announced final ruling.
But the onus is on opponents to change the judge’s mind. Much of the hearing centered on Walt Ranch opponents’ claims that county environmental studies on such complex issues as groundwater are inadequate under state law.
“The court’s role is to do quality control,” Warriner said at one point.
Walt Ranch is to be 209 acres of vineyard blocks on 2,300 acres in the hills between the city of Napa and Lake Berryessa. Craig and Kathryn Hall of HALL Wines in St. Helena are leaders in the project.
The proposal became a flashpoint in growth wars about vineyard development in the county’s mountainous watershed areas. Dozens of people in 2015 and 2016 attended county hearings that went on for hours, holding signs saying such things as “No to soil erosion” and “Halt Walt.”
Napa County approved the Walt Ranch project in 2016 and the issue moved from the Board of Supervisors room to the courtroom. Living Rivers Council, Circle Oaks County Water District and – in a single lawsuit — the Center for Biological Diversity and the Sierra Club sued to overturn the decision.
On Tuesday, attorneys for the opposition began making their oral arguments as to why the tentative decision favoring Napa County shouldn’t stand.
Most of the arguments were technical. The goal was to poke holes in a county environmental impact report that found potential adverse effects from Walt Ranch could, with certain steps, be rendered “less than significant.”
Opponents challenged the idea that deep ripping the soil – breaking up the rocks – would permanently make the soil more permeable in vineyards, leading to less rainwater runoff. They brought up the issue of drifting pesticides hurting rare species of frogs.
For example, Living Rivers Council attorney Thomas Lippe said the environmental studies failed to look at such pesticide drift issues as the life cycles of the species and when pesticides will be applied.
“You have no analysis of how bad the problem might be,” he said.
Circle Oaks attorney Rachel Mansfield-Howlett focused on whether groundwater use by Walt Ranch would hurt well water supplies for the adjacent, rural Circle Oaks community. She said the community has insufficient protections should a problem arise.
Attorney Whit Manley parried opponents’ claims on behalf of the county and Walt Ranch. He talked about a study done on a 2006 vineyard already at Walt Ranch to verify that deep ripping had permanently changed the soil profile.
“The notion that somehow the county wasn’t responsive to this concern is incorrect,” he said.
Tuesday’s hearing lasted from about 9:30 a.m. to noon, with a break. Then Warriner said the next hearing will be at 1 p.m. on March 1.
Attorneys for the Center for Biological Diversity and Sierra Club should speak at that time. Among other things, the groups have argued that the Walt Ranch site can legally have 35 estate homes and that the environmental impact report should have considered the possibility.
But the four-page tentative ruling finds the opponents’ arguments unpersuasive. It denies the requests that the court order the county to decertify the Walt Ranch environmental impact report and vacate the Walt Ranch approvals.
Whether that will be the final word remains to be seen.
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