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The Napa Valley Land Stewards Alliance, fresh from knocking down proposed stream setback ordinances in 2004, is taking up a new cause.

The Land Stewards want to see compensation for Napa County property owners who suffer documented losses in the value of their property due to land use actions by the Napa County Board of Supervisors.

The Land Stewards are circulating petitions in order put the issue before voters as early as November. They need 3,668 valid signatures to qualify the ballot measure.

"It's a reaction to Measure P," George Bachich, president of the Land Stewards, said of the stream setback ordinance that failed a year ago. "(The proponents) got their fingers burned. There's not going to be a stream setback ordinance for a long time."

Bachich said the county has taken the position that if any economic value remains on a piece of land after it has had restrictions placed upon it, that does not constitute a "taking."

"This policy is unfair to property owners and should be changed," said Bachich.

Already one local organization has taken a strong position against the Land Stewards' effort.

The Napa County Group of the Sierra Club countered that under the proposed new law, "Our choices would boil down to paying off the land speculators and their lawyers, standing aside for the bulldozers or facing budget-busting legislation."

The Sierra Club's Genji Schmeder, in a prepared news release, said, "In effect, this outrageous law would require all of us to pay developers not to ruin our rural neighborhoods and environment."

Bachich said that is precisely what should happen. "For decades, many rural Napa County families have been forced to bear huge financial and social costs for the benefit of the rest of us."

Bachich hopes to see more people become involved in voluntary conservation efforts so additional land use restrictions are not needed.

Past stream setback failures

In 2004, two stream setback measures went before voters.

Measure O was a conservationist-sponsored stream setback ordinance that would have put in place tough new restrictions regarding what development or plantings could take place near the county's waterways, including many small tributaries and seasonal streams.

When supervisors responded by proposing their own more moderate setback law, Measure P, the Land Stewards took the initiative to knock it down at the polls.

Both measures were soundly defeated.

The Land Stewards' new proposal has similarities to a ballot initiative passed in Oregon in 2000 and later invalidated by that state's supreme court. Bachich said the Land Stewards' plan is not as draconian, since it is not retroactive and allows for several exceptions.

Oregon voters subsequently passed another compensation measure which is currently in litigation, and California's Nevada County soundly defeated a compensation law in 2002.

Under the Land Stewards' initiative, restrictions on development are allowed if they:

* Were in effect prior to the filing of the measure

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* Are related to so-called public nuisances

* Involve fire or building codes

* Or are mandated by state or federal law

Schmeder and the Sierra Club contend, "The Land Stewards envision a future shaped not by 'we the people' but by real estate speculators and trial lawyers. This is a naked money grab."

Sandy Elles of the Napa County Farm Bureau said land use regulations are a product of our society and are meant to enhance property values, not detract from them.

Elles said the cost to local government could be significant. "The Farm Bureau has not analyzed it yet in a thorough manner. It's very complex and difficult to quantify," she said. "It's a very difficult new interpretation of what's fair."

Bachich said the Land Stewards put together focus groups in order to test the premises put forth in the proposal, called the Fair Payment for Public Benefit Act. "They were well balanced and made up of likely voters," he said. "We take encouragement from the results."

Of the 13 members in one of the groups, all expressed support of the plan. "It's needed," he said.

The Land Stewards have a self-imposed deadline of July 1 to gather the needed signatures. The 3,668 figure for signatures is based on 10 percent of the votes cast in the last gubernatorial election. By doubling that number, the Land Stewards could get a special election, but Bachich said that is not their goal.

So far, there has been little support or opposition from local leaders or organizations. "I don't care," said Bachich. "We want to win the hearts and minds of the voters. Organizations are impotent."

Why not go to the supervisors to seek enactment of the ordinance rather than go to the trouble and expense of an election? "Not if you want permanent protection," said Bachich. "A future board could undo it, but the voters can do anything they want."

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