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Break the law, get a reward

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The rule of law is the cornerstone of a functioning democracy. When a municipality refuses to enforce it, it not only loses the public trust but also the very authority to create it. In the absence of punishment, nothing will stop the proliferation of crime and the social contract gradually collapses.

Along comes a recent application by a winery -- currently under contract to be sold -- seeking to legalize its openly admitted violations of permitted production and visitations levels, presumably so that it can finalize its sale at a price based on these increased levels. The openly admitted violations are so substantial that the County Planning Department has, rather creatively, characterized the application as a "Major Modification."

The applicant's stated rationale is as astonishing as it is disturbing. It basically says: "We have been producing more wine and accommodating more visitors than our use permit allows for many years now and you, the County, has done nothing to stop us. We therefore ask you to legalize what we have been doing!"

In a civil society with a functioning government, one would expect this winery to suffer sanctions and the application to be tossed into the wastepaper basket. Remarkably, the application is being considered.

If you think this is an isolated case, think twice. A random audit revealed that almost half -- yes, half -- of all Napa wineries did not comply with their use permits in 2013. We are back in the wild west! A reasonable question would be: "Why have winery use permits in the first place? Why burden taxpayers with staff time creating them? Obviously, the Supervisors have deemed that the semblance of -- rather than actual -- law is a good enough opiate for the citizens of Napa.

They say, if you want enforcement, we need more money to fund it. One wishes this were true, because here we already know who the perpetrator is and seriously consider rewarding him. Watch for the "negotiated" outcome.

If the county sanctioned one offending winery per year by suspending their use permit for a year or two, respect for the law would be re-established instantly as well as the dwindling trust in government. At no cost I might add.

The sad reality is that if you violate any other law in Napa county, you will be prosecuted. If you are a winery, you can take the law into your own hands and expect to be rewarded. But we are at the tipping point of this shameful symbiosis because it affects everyone's quality of life.

Christine Tittel

Calistoga

Editor's note: County planning officials confirmed the details of the application the author cites, but point out that the current owners are following the established legal process for requesting significant changes to their use permit and the county has no basis to preemptively reject such a request without a fair hearing. Because it is a "major modification," the request will be subject to environmental review and a public hearing and will require notification of neighbors within 1,000 feet. A new owner would have the right to make such a request as well.

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