Napa County planning commissioners got a triple dose of a hot topic that puts them in the hot seat — those controversial exceptions to county winery growth rules called variances.
Commissioners on Wednesday heard expansion requests from Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars, Summers Estate Wines and Dakota Shy winery. All three wineries wanted permission to build closer to a major road than is allowed under county rules.
The commission granted exceptions to Stag’s Leap and Dakota Shy and indicated it would turn down the Summers request at future meeting.
All of this is part of a continuing debate over whether the Planning Commission too readily grants variances, in some cases making possible winery development that would otherwise be impossible. That, in turn, is part of the larger debate over whether winery growth is out of control in wine country.
“We have been asked to — and I think that we’ve made a commitment — to be as grudging as possible with the issuance of variances,” Planning Commissioner Terry Scott said.
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But Stag’s Leap, Dakota Shy and Summers all said their projects met the threshold for having an exception granted.
“I feel like today we’re going to variance school in some ways, because of the applications before us,” Commissioner Jeri Gill said. It’s not often the commission handles three variance requests in a single day.
The state’s Planning Guide defines a variance as “a limited waiver of development standards allowed by the zoning ordinance.”
A planning commission may grant variances in special cases in which strictly applying zoning laws would deprive a property owner of rights enjoyed by nearby property owners. For example, a steep slope near the rear of a property could be reason to allow building a home closer to the street than is usual. Economic hardship alone is not sufficient justification, the guide says.
Deputy County Counsel Laura Anderson said variances are a constitutional safeguard to protect against the taking of property. They should be granted as the exception, not the norm.
Last year, the county’s Agricultural Protection Advisory Committee (APAC) recommended the Planning Commission avoid using variances as a principal tool to help applicants comply with land-use regulations. On Dec. 8, the Board of Supervisors agreed.
“If we have to write something that says we’re going to do variance avoidance, that’s fine,” Supervisor Diane Dillon said. “I think if the Planning Commission was really adhering to the letter of the law in regard to variances, we wouldn’t need that.”
Granting variances shouldn’t be the “default setting” to find easy solutions, Supervisor Brad Wagenknecht said.
“It was my understanding you only use variances when it’s absolutely required to otherwise avoid having to take your property as not usable,” Supervisor Mark Luce said. “We just need to get back to what the basic understanding was.”
From 2005 through 2014. the panel approved 33 variance requests, an average of about 3.5 a year, a county report said. It hit a high mark in 2014 when it granted six variances.
Against that backdrop, the commission took up the three variance requests on Wednesday. All involved the 1990 county law requiring wineries to be located 600 feet from major roads to keep the drive-by view from being a clutter of buildings.
Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars is located at 5766 Silverado Trail southeast of Yountville. The winery asked to demolish two production buildings totaling 8,514 square feet and replace them with two bigger buildings totaling 10,966 square feet at the same location.
The two existing buildings were built before the road setback law existed. Constructing the new buildings outside the setback would entail removing oaks and building roads and crossing a creek, county Planner Shaveta Sharma said. It would take the buildings away from the caves and barrel storage areas.
“We think this is a textbook example of why variances are allowed under state law,” said Jeff Redding, who spoke on behalf of Stag’s Leap.
Commissioner Anne Cottrell saw practical reasons for building the new, technologically improved production buildings on the same site as the old ones. But she struggled with how the variance request met what she called “the high bar” of being necessary for the preservation and enjoyment of substantial property rights.
Redding replied that Stag’s Leap needs to replace antiquated infrastructure. Denying the variance would limit the owner’s ability to continue to compete in the marketplace at the price and niche in which he has been successful.
The commission approved the variance by a 4-0 vote. Among other reasons, commissioners noted that Stag’s Leap could have remodeled and expanded the existing production buildings targeted for demolition without a variance. Only constructing new buildings made them subject to the setback law.
Summers Estate Wines is located at 1171 Tubbs Lane near Calistoga. The winery wanted to build a tank farm within the 600-foot roadway setback. County staff recommended against the commission granting the request because the tank farm could be built elsewhere on the property.
Gill said the tank farm could be attached to an existing building. There’s no pressing environmental reasons to grant the variance, she said.
But Scott said he was troubled. Doing the right thing, the thing that seems logical, right and fair, sometimes is difficult to accomplish with a strict interpretation of the findings needed to grant a variance, he said.
“I feel the commission has a certain amount of flexibility,” he said. “Otherwise, why have a commission?”
Cio Perez of the Napa County Farm Bureau said legal findings and requirements must be met to grant variances.
The commission postponed the Summers application to Feb. 17. All four commissioners—including Scott—signaled they would not support a variance.
Dakota Shy Winery is located at 771 Sage Canyon Road southeast of St. Helena. It asked to convert the existing winery to storage and to build a new winery encroaching 503 feet into the 600-foot setback from Silverado Trail. The new winery could produce 14,000 gallons of wine annually, an increase from 1,000 gallons.
The existing winery was built before the county passed the setback law in 1990, a county report said. Setbacks of 600 feet for both Silverado Trail and Sage Canyon Road would preclude any winery expansion on the six acres, short of a variance, it said.
Donna Oldford, who spoke on behalf of Dakota Shy, saw no alternative to an exception.
“Nobody in their right mind goes seeking a variance, especially nowadays,” she said.
Commissioners spent little time debating this exception, and approved it 4-0. Much of the hearing instead focused on such issues as where to have the roadway entrance — the commission agreed with Dakota Shy and put it on Sage Canyon Road rather than Silverado Trail.
“Looking at this parcel, it is very unique,” Gill said. “It is a little bit strange. I think the applicants have done a good job being sensitive to the location.”
With that, the Planning Commission wrapped up its variance decisions — for now.
“This is variance day,” Cottrell said. “It may be variance year.”