With a perspective of nearly a half-century of growing grapes and making wine, I must ring the alarm bell that our county is in serious trouble. There is a serious lack of leadership, the county’s permitting process is broken and the March 29 compliance deadline for wineries will be calamitous.
Unfortunately, the Measure C fight did not end with the June 5 election last year. It continues like a cancer that is destroying the county from within. Amidst all this chaos, our county’s senior leadership is now making poor strategic choices that are destabilizing the wine industry and unduly burdening landowners.
Congressman Mike Thompson and our senior Supervisors Dillon and Wagenknecht sat on the sidelines during the Measure C fight when their leadership was needed. It was our newly elected supervisors Gregory, Pedroza and Ramos who filled the leadership void and provided direction. Whether you agree with their stand against Measure C or not, we all have to respect their courage to take a stand when others refused.
It was President Obama who said “elections matter.” Apparently, Congressman Mike Thompson and Supervisors Dillon and Wagenknecht did not get the message that Measure C lost. As I see it, Napa County appeased Measure C proponents by turning their demands into the Water Quality and Tree Preservation Ordinance (WQTPO).
In retrospect, it seems obvious that to obfuscate this direct linkage, the county used the Strategic Plan process as cover for the WQTPO. The Strategic Plan was flawed from the outset because it was heavily biased against the wine industry. All the meetings were held during harvest, our busiest time of the year. The Measure C proponents, having just lost, were highly motivated to have their voices heard and the process would amplify their voices into the final version. The Strategic Plan also promised “government integrity and transparency and would work with stakeholders on new regulation.” None of that happened.
The draft ordinance clearly states that new regulations will only be considered when “new evidence and science become available,” yet none has been provided. Every farming and wine organization has raised serious concerns about the need for this ordinance because of the lack of fact-based evidence demonstrating a need.
And if the above isn’t enough to be concerned with, the county is blind to the calamity that their artificially imposed March 29 compliance deadline is about to wreak on wineries.
Resolving the compliance issues would be a big help to our community. But that will never happen as long as the permitting process is broken. Just one more visitor per day or just one more employee requires a winery to spend $100,000 for a Use Permit Modification that can take years to obtain. Currently, we have an unresponsive moratorium-like system that does not work. Violation is now a response to a broken system. Vineyard replants are exempt from new regulations; why shouldn’t established wineries have that same exemption?
New collaborative leadership is needed to resolve these issues. Difficult though it may be, the WQTPO must be scrapped, and the first priority should be revamping the county’s permitting process to make it truly functional, which must include sufficient funding and staff.
The buck stops with our supervisors. They allowed this system to fail and they need to take responsibility for fixing it without destroying us in the process.