Voters in the June 7 primary will decide if Gov. Jerry Brown made the right choice for the 4th District Napa County Board of Supervisors seat.
In November 2014, Brown appointed then-City Councilman Alfredo Pedroza to fill the seat vacated by Bill Dodd, who had just been elected to the state Assembly. That leaves Pedroza as the unelected incumbent.
Long-time local environmentalist Chris Malan and Napa Vision 2050 founding member Diane Shepp are trying to convince voters that they are a better fit. But how do two candidates who stress environmental and land-use concerns avoid splitting the vote and handing Pedroza a victory?
“That’s the conundrum,” Shepp said. “That’s the big question. Hopefully, the voters will go to all of our websites, go to the forums, listen to what the candidates are saying and vote. They’ve got to vote.”
Malan portrayed herself as the true environmental candidate and Pedroza alternative, the only one calling for such things as a moratorium on winery growth. She sees Shepp and Pedroza splitting the vote and giving her the chance to win.
Pedroza, for his part, doesn’t want to be painted with a broad brush. He said Napa can have a healthy environment and healthy businesses.
“For me, my candidacy is more about sustainable growth, it’s not about being an environmental or being a pro-business candidate,” Pedroza said. “The lines aren’t as sharp as people make them out to be.”
Pedroza recently recalled how family trips to Mexico included stories from his parents about their childhoods. They grew up in an environment of scarcity where shower time and even the number of toilet flushes were limited.
“I always came home feeling very grateful for the opportunities we have,” Pedroza said. “Now I’m in a position to make it (even) better.”
Pedroza is a Napa native and graduate of Vintage High School and Sonoma State University. He worked as a banking manager.
His local political career began in earnest on Dec. 4, 2012 at age 25. That’s when he took the oath of office and became the first Latino member and youngest member ever on the Napa City Council. His appointment to the Board of Supervisors came two years later.
When asked what he’d like his signature accomplishment to be if elected, Pedroza took a broader approach. He said he is looking beyond a single issue to the bigger vision, which is the continued enhancement of the local quality of life.
Affordable housing is a part of his vision. RealtyTrac calculates the median price for a house in the county at $545,000, a price requiring average wage earners to spend 84 percent of their incomes to afford.
“The premise of working hard and being able to live in Napa is being compromised,” Pedroza said.
Napa County must focus on city-centered growth in such places as downtown Napa and American Canyon, he said. And, even though cities control their own growth destinies within their borders, Pedroza sees the county as having a role to play.
For example, the county’s Health and Human Services Agency this summer is moving from its complex on Old Sonoma Road in Napa to a new home at the former Dey Laboratories. Pedroza sees the 8.5 acres at Old Sonoma Road as becoming a site for housing.
But that project requires the county and city to work together, since the city will zone the land. Pedroza sees the relationships he built while serving on the Napa City Council as a plus in these situations.
Housing and traffic problems are related, Pedroza said. The county needs to work with the cities, the wine industry and the hospitality industry to solve them, he said.
One traffic-fighting effort involves working with the county’s core employers to establish shuttle buses that could travel Highway 29 and Silverado Trail bringing employees to work. They would be similar to the Google buses elsewhere in the Bay Area, Pedroza said.
“That’s the future of Napa,” Pedroza said.
Hillside vineyard developments in Napa County’s watersheds that require the removal of oak forests have become increasingly controversial. Pedroza noted the county requires erosion control plans and groundwater water sustainability analyses.
“If the tools aren’t working, let’s identify the gap and address the gap,” Pedroza said.
But he doesn’t see an emergency, and disagreed with the perception in some quarters that the wine industry “is getting the red carpet” for its vineyard approvals. It can take years to win permission to develop on the hillsides, Pedroza said.
“I’m thinking about neighbors and making sure their wells are not going dry,” he added.
Earlier this year, Napa Vision 2050 presented to the county studies showing Napa County has one of the higher cancer rates in the state, including the highest rate for childhood cancer. Pedroza said one person affected by cancer is too much, but the county has to be logical in looking at the facts and variables.
The county Health and Human Services Agency is working with the state to examine the statistics.
“The county is not sweeping this under the rug,” Pedroza said. “The supervisors aren’t trying to dodge this. We’re addressing this.”
Pedroza stressed the nuts and bolts of county governance, such as having a balanced budget and the financial stability to provide services. He said he wants to make certain the county can attract and retain talented, innovative employees.
While acknowledging that challenges face the county, Pedroza keeps an upbeat attitude. He sees the county creating jobs and taking on the housing issue. People feel safe living in the county, he said.
“Those are all things that are part of the quality of life we all appreciate,” Pedroza said. “You see people want to raise families here.”
Shepp recalls moving to Soda Canyon from her hometown of Berkeley 32 years ago. She and her husband wanted a more rural lifestyle where they could enjoy such pursuits as flyfishing. She received a surprise those initial nights.
“It was so quiet, I couldn’t go to sleep,” Shepp said.
But in subsequent years, she has seen more wineries and vineyards go in along narrow, dead-end, seven-mile-long Soda Canyon Road. The proposed Mountain Peak winery spurred her to get involved in the public discourse three years ago.
“We were concerned about the quality and quiet enjoyment of our neighborhood, as well as the safety on our road, ” Shepp said.
That led to her helping to found the group that would become Protect Rural Napa. That group joined with other neighborhood and environmental groups a year ago to form Napa Vision 2050, a coalition that has questioned the county’s land-use vision.
Shepp listed several goals she’d like to achieve as supervisor that she sees as being related.
One is to make certain the county enforces its rules equally. Wineries out of compliance with their use permits might seek and find forgiveness. Meanwhile, she said, a resident who constructs a building without a building permit faces fines and a red-tagged structure.
“Why not have everyone comply with their permits?” Shepp said. “Just make them comply. Get some penalty fees in there. Once you do that, you’ll probably get less of this ‘asking for forgiveness’ thing that’s going on.”
The county is still formulating a revised winery enforcement approach. The Board of Supervisors favors phasing in strict enforcement in about two years, after working with wineries to clarify sometimes confusing use permit requirements.
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Protecting watersheds is critical, Shepp said. She noted that city of Napa Water General Manager Joy Eldredge has expressed concern that hillside vineyard development could affect water quality in the city’s Milliken Reservoir.
Napa County’s vision for vineyard development – as well as winery growth – is set forth in its 2008 General Plan.
“It’s time now to start revisiting that General Plan,” Shepp said.
Citizens and the cities have to be involved with the effort, she said. Some formal structure is needed so that the cities and county together can work on a plan for the whole county. What happens in American Canyon or Calistoga affects everyone in the county.
She proposed easing traffic problems by starting a light- rail system that connects Napa Valley with Vallejo. She noted that Napa County a century ago had electric trains that ran up and down the valley.
“If they had the technology and ability to do it 100 years ago, I would sure hope we could do it again,” Shepp said.
The Board of Supervisors recently declined to raise the minimum wage in the unincorporated county because the state will raise it to $15 per hour in 2022. Shepp wants the Board to raise the local minimum wage to $15 immediately.
A $15 per hour wage, combined with housing programs, could take some of the stress off new families, she said.
Napa Vision 2050 has pressed the county for answers on high local cancer rates. Shepp noted that some neighborhood groups are worried that dust blowing from the Syar quarry might contain silica and other carcinogens.
A Syar environmental report done for the county found no cancer threat from the dust. Neighborhood groups say that the report is flawed.
“I would strongly encourage the county to put in some kind of machines that actually monitor the air quality around there,” Shepp said.
Shepp considered what Pedroza might be doing wrong and why voters shouldn’t return him to office.
“I don’t feel that the supervisors are really hearing the concerns of local residents,” Shepp said.
Going door-to-door for the campaign, she’s found a lot of people are angry. They see the county focused on getting more wineries and visitor centers, but don’t see the roads being repaired or traffic issues being solved. They are concerned about Napa County’s high cancer rates.
“They feel like they’re getting just a lot of lip service,” Shepp said.
Malan said issues she has stressed for years – among them protecting local watersheds from deforestation – are growing in resonance.
She said things have changed since she received 10 percent of the vote in the 2000 Board of Supervisors election. High Napa County cancer rates, climate change and the importance of clean, local water supplies amid the drought have been in the news.
“We can’t change the world, but we can change where we live,” Malan said. “We can change the county.”
The Atlas Peak resident who has worked as a Napa County mental health professional for 35 years is ready to be an agent of change. One place she’d start is with winery growth.
Napa County’s winery data base lists 483 wineries. The county’s pending application list contains 22 major modification requests for existing wineries and 29 applications for new wineries. Some residents, including Malan, have expressed concern that wine country could drown in its own success.
Malan is calling for a moratorium on new wineries until the county can formulate a winery growth management plan.
“The population is very frustrated and angry about the growth in the county that’s changing neighborhoods and sucking water dry out of the aquifer,” Malan said.
What a growth management law might look like would emerge from community discussions, Malan said. The county needs to look at the trajectory of winery growth and link that to its resources.
“There’s a carrying capacity here,” Malan said. “That’s what we have to figure out.”
The Board of Supervisors briefly considered a moratorium a year ago, but didn’t pursue it. A county staff report said a moratorium could hurt the tourist industry by signaling that the county’s problems are so bad that public health, safety or welfare require an immediate halt to development.
Napa County’s groundwater studies show stable levels in most places on the Napa Valley floor, with some exceptions. But Malan doesn’t think the county is using the best possible data. For example, she said the county needs a baseline year before groundwater declines started.
“They’re not telling the truth about what’s happening with the aquifer,” Malan said.
She criticized the county for not moving ahead with forming a groundwater sustainability agency for the Napa Valley aquifer. Napa County instead wants to tell the state that it already has a successful groundwater management program and should be allowed to opt out.
“I am disgusted with the smoke and mirrors and lack of transparency on a major issue facing our community going forward,” Malan said.
Malan, like the other candidates, expressed concerns about Napa County’s high cancer rates. She doesn’t want to wait until causes are pinpointed – something that may never happen – before taking what she calls “common-sense” steps.
One step would be reducing pesticides and other chemicals in farming and having more organic farms, Malan said. She said the county can build on its 150 organic farms, despite obstacles.
“So we have the big corporations coming and they’re doing high volume and less sensitive projects,” Malan said. “They live out of state, they’re just making money … they’re not going to be encouraged to go organic.”
But family farmers raising children and grandchildren here want to take care of the environment, she said.
On the traffic front, she talked of working with the cities and other counties on mass transit. She suggested having smaller, more luxurious vehicles with a greater variation in where they could go.
“And I would say ‘fun,’” Malan said. “Let’s make it fun so people get out of their cars and get into some kind of transit.”
Many of Malan’s proposed solutions to Napa County’s challenges veer from the path being charted by the Board of Supervisors, such as her proposed winery growth moratorium. That raises the possibility that Malan, if elected, would simply be on the losing end of 4-1 votes.
“I can make motions and they can be denied,” Malan said. “I can make another motion and it can be denied. But there’s people in the audience now who come regularly to the Board of Supervisors and they’re going to be heard.”
She said two supervisors – she wouldn’t name names – would help her carry on a conversation on key issues. And she said future elections could steer the Board of Supervisors in different directions.
“I’m not in this alone,” Malan said.