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Woodland Preservation Initiative

Proponents of an initiative to limit development in woodlands and watersheds submitted petitions to get the measure on the June ballot to the Election Office on Friday morning. Co-author of the initiative Jim Wilson, right, hands over boxes of signed petitions to Registrar of Voters John Tuteur, center, and Jennie Keener, assessment records assistant.

J.L. Sousa, Register file photo

A proposed ballot measure to further protect Napa County oak woodlands and watersheds returned in 2017 amid maneuverings that split the wine industry.

Napa Valley Vintners, an arch foe of the original, 2016 proposed measure, teamed up with residents Mike Hackett and Jim Wilson to write a new version. Other wine industry groups said they were left out.

“It was crafted by a handful of people without any input from those it will directly impact or the county officials who need to implement it,” said Michelle Benvenuto, executive director of Winegrowers of Napa County.

When the dust settled, initiative backers thought they had enough signatures to qualify the measure for the June 5 ballot and Napa Valley Vintners had withdrawn its support.

All of this sets the stage for a 2018 election battle. Supporters say the measure will protect Napa County’s water supplies and oak forests. Opponents say it will needlessly curtail hillside vineyard development.

Wilson and Hackett had tried to place another version of the watershed measure on the November 2016 ballot. The county disqualified their initiative petition on a technicality.

In September, Wilson, Hackett and Napa Valley Vintners announced they had co-authored a revised measure and filed it with the county Election Division. That meant they could try to gather the 3,800 signatures of local registered voters needed to qualify it for the June 5 ballot.

Hackett praised Napa Valley Vintners for a collaboration he said took place over the previous seven months.

“They are very interested in the future of Napa County and working with environmentalists,” he said in September.

Michael Honig, chair of the Napa Valley Vintners Board of Directors, outlined the group’s position in a press release.

“Failure of last year’s flawed oak woodland and watershed initiative inspired us to explore common ground with its sponsors and created the chance for us to cooperate to achieve our common goals,” he said. “Together, we found an approach that we believe will receive widespread support.”

Leaders with other wine industry groups said they were surprised both by the filing and by the fruits of this collaboration. It was clear that they were none-to-happy about the entire episode.

In late September, the Napa Valley Vintners Board of Directors revisited the proposed measure. It announced it wanted a community collaboration to craft yet another version for the November 2018 election.

“We’re focused on a community consensus-building process right now and we’re hoping (Hackett and Wilson) will join us,” Rex Stults of Napa Valley Vintners said.

So was Napa Valley Vintners now actively opposing the measure it had co-authored and filed with Hackett and Wilson? That wasn’t clear. The group in a press release said it had decided to “suspend work” on that version.

Hackett and Wilson moved forward trying to qualify a measure virtually identical to their collaboration with Napa Valley Vintners for the June 5 ballot. Napa County Farm Bureau, Napa Valley Grapegrowers and Winegrowers of Napa County have announced their opposition.

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A key feature of the proposed measure is a 795-acre oak woodland removal limit for agricultural watershed zoning areas as tallied from September 2017. Once the limit is reached, property owners would, in most cases, have to obtain a county permit to remove oak woodlands.

New vineyards are not included among the uses available under the permit.

Hackett has said the 795-acre limit is based on the county’s 2008 General plan projections through 2030 for vineyard development. He estimates the limit should allow another 6,000 or so acres of vineyards, assuming 14 percent of the development requires oak removal.

The measure also does such things as strengthen setbacks for streams. Supporters say this protects stream-side vegetation that filters water that eventually ends up in local reservoirs and provides habitat.

“The earth does need a lighter touch,” Wilson said.

But the Farm Bureau said governance by initiative should be a last resort. The Grapegrowers said that the oak removal limit has likely already been reached by projects in the pipeline.

Voters may have the final word on June 5.

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Napa County Reporter

Barry Eberling covers Napa County government, transportation, the environment and general assignments. He was worked for the Napa Valley Register since fall 2014 and previously worked 27 years for the Daily Republic of Fairfield. He is a graduate of UC Sa