Apparently, Napa County, famous tourist destination and wine brand, is the picture of prosperity.
If only wealth were a measure of health.
For profound health, the ancient maxim emphasizes identity: know thyself. Napa County’s identity is agricultural and rural. Its health is predicated on farming and its natural landscape. Traffic and excessive tourism (think film festivals, races, concerts, cooking classes) subvert its identity. Cheating on identity betokens an identity crisis: a fatal malady.
But Napa is in denial about its incorruptibility. Thus, its credibility also suffers. Visitors’ bureaus chatter about Napa’s charming small towns and lovely landscape---unbelievably as traffic grinds on Highway 29 and chain saws prepare to hack trees by the thousands in Calistoga.
Yet Napa’s debasement of its own identity is embarrassingly well-known: In November the New York Times called Napa Valley a “very touristy wine region,” and as an alternative enthused that Paso Robles is “what Napa was before it was discovered.” Even the mayor of nearby Sebastopol decried encroaching “Napafication” like a plague. Meanwhile, the board of supervisors can offer rosy economics.
The wine industry is impressive. But with the supervisors’ blessing it’s spawned rampaging tourism---an average of 9,000 visitors per day in 2014. Last year witnessed more supervisors-sponsored decline in the well-being of Napa County.
For example: After hearing scores of locals’ complaints about the loss of our semi-rural character at a jam-packed day-long meeting of over 400 citizens, in 2016 the supervisors---under pressure from the wine industry---weakened its own committee’s already-modest recommendations to mitigate encroaching urbanization. What an empty exercise in futility that day-long meeting was.
Last year, new county supervisors were elected. But there’s little hope of them standing up to incessant wine-tourist industry expectations of favorable treatment.
There’s more. In the hills above Napa, the board’s approval of Walt Ranch vineyards (with the possibility of luxury housing) and the obliteration of thousands of trees was nearly a foregone conclusion, despite highly competent criticism of the environmental impact report. The overmatched Circle Oaks neighbors hardly stood a chance.
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Nor, worried about the grand expansion of the Syar operation, did neighbors there find support from their elected representatives.
Continuing the relentless indulgence, in 2016 the supervisors’ Planning Commission awarded permits to wineries for approximately 270,000 more visitations by tourists. Also it approved over 20 new or expanded wineries. The environmental impact reports for these projects routinely describe them as having no significant adverse effect---oblivious of their disastrous cumulative effect, as George Caloyannidis has pointed out. Cumulative effects are part of the big picture the supervisors are charged with controlling. Instead they seem to inhabit a magical wonderland where you can build endlessly and stay forever rural.
Well over 40 projects await the Planning Commission’s approval this year.
Frustrated at their county leaders’ amiable acquiescence to development, volunteers on their own initiative easily gathered signatures to limit destruction of the county’s oak woodland. It was opposed by special wine industry interests. A judge kept it off the ballot on a technicality: another empty exercise in public participation.
There were a few bright spots in 2016. The supervisors rezoned a small contested area in Angwin. And the citizens of St. Helena, with unexpected brio, actually replaced two incumbent council members. St. Helenans also responded quite coolly to proposals for a big tourist development in the center of town---showing, unlike neighboring Calistoga, refreshing reluctance to sell their soul.
But St. Helena alone cannot arrest the county’s demise. With supervisors sympathetic to wine and tourist industry development, the prognosis for the patient looks bad. So to maintain the illusion of health, hucksters will shamelessly proclaim Napa’s rural beauty---incongruously brimming with alcohol-fueled traffic. Soon what’ll be offered is just the relic of a rural valley, swarming with tourists and propped up like a scarecrow to fool the city folk that it’s genuine.
Honoring Napa’s true semi-rural identity is the path back to health (not just transitory wealth) -- if only county leaders honestly walk it and don’t just talk it.