A few years ago, we noticed a slight sagging on a roof portion of a house we own. We engaged a carpenter to expose the structure below so that we could determine the extent of the underlying damage and obtain the appropriate permits. While this work was going on, a county building inspector happened to pass by. Contending that a re-roofing permit was required, he red-tagged the job and sent the carpenter home.
Such stories are common in this county where regular homeowners are red-tagged for failure to obtain building permits for minor projects, even when parking an R.V. on a prohibited portion of their property. As petty as such conduct may seem, modern societies can only function when all citizens obey their laws.
And most of them do; unless that is, they belong to the Napa Valley’s privileged cast the Supervisors have created: That of violating winery owners. For them, justice is allowed to peek under her blindfold.
Only a few weeks ago, the supervisors gave their blessings to a winery of which much has been written about by legalizing its violations involving converting buildings to other uses, spreading cave tailings on hillsides without grading and erosion control plans and building on stream setbacks, for which ordinary citizens would face fines if not criminal charges.
If this were not enough, this winery had also doubled its production and increased its visitations many times over for many years without permits. During the entire hearings, the winery’s ready buyer was allowed to remain anonymous. Shockingly and as morally offensive as this may be, the county bade the violator farewell by adding millions to his sale.
With such an egregious case receiving the blessing of our supervisors, the floodgates are wide open. So as not to miss the opportunity, another winery north of Calistoga has illegally converted a 2,350-square-foot home into a tasting room and another, south of St. Helena has done so with over 10,000 square feet of structures approved for other uses. No red tags there!
Dozens more are in the pipeline of absolution. The culture of rampant winery lawlessness and unfair competition is thriving in the fertile ground the Supervisors have nurtured.
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The county calls this process: “bringing wineries into compliance,” which any normal person in good faith believes to mean: “Compel wineries to adhere to their use permits.”
But to the county in a twisted way, it means: “adjust use permits to fit the violations.” To justify this practice, the Supervisors publicly state that their hands are tied based on the “existing policy of forgiveness” embodied in its March 10, 1998 adopted Manual of Policies and Procedures. The problem is that bowing to public pressure, this policy no longer exists. It was rescinded by them on Dec. 13, 2005 as resolution No. 05-229 but only in name, because they continue to hide behind it and disingenuously justify the approval of violations claiming that this policy of forgiveness is still in force. Two of the sitting supervisors are ones who had signed that rescission.
The suggested violation remedies from the Agricultural Protection Advisory Committee, currently under review by the county, are mere window-dressing designed to silence the outrage because, as incredible as this sounds, some supervisors have publicly stated that compelling wineries to adhere to their existing use permits is: “Out of the question”! What kind of government is one that states that obeying its own laws is out of the question?
Here is a tip: Join the scofflaw cast and invest in “winery violation bonds.” They are the most lucrative risk-free investment, backed by the fully guaranteed of Napa County. Unfortunately, law-abiding citizens need not apply.
More troubling is a conversation gaining traction at private gatherings and dinner tables of ordinary residents. When supervisors accommodate an ethically outrageous culture, offensive to every law-abiding citizen, when the identities of principals are allowed to remain secret, at least to the public, making the vetting of potential improper political contributions impossible, citizens have legitimate reasons to question whether corruption has crept into our political process.
The supervisors must show that they can regain the moral authority to govern and restore faith in a fair and moral political process. The cast system of scofflaws they have created that elevates them to preferential treatment status has place in other societies, not ones we wish to emulate. The supervisors’ seemingly legal acrobatics to justify some of their policies are being exposed. Let the public judge them for what they are.
Caloyannidis lives in Calistoga.