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Property rights. Again.

Property rights. Again.

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Vintner Stuart Smith has now written a second letter-to-the-editor on March 9 regarding the watershed conservation initiative, Measure C. In "Sticking it to landowners isn't the answer," he defends, with even more hyperbole, his previous letter of March 2, "Initiative will unfairly take property rights." His is not the first complaint from a vintner about being denied property rights:

"John Daniel, former owner of the Inglenook Vineyard and still owner of extensive vineyard property, called the AP zone in its present form 'patently unfair, un-american and socialistic'. He called the proposal's objectives 'vague and imprecise' and said the disadvantages will be definite and specific. 'We will be deprived of our property rights with no compensation,'" wrote the Napa Valley Register on Dec. 21, 1967.

It needs to be restated that the ability of vintners like Mr. Smith to make wine in this county today is a direct result of property rights that were denied to property owners in 1968. Being denied the right to subdivide their properties, or sell them for non-ag use meant the survival of agriculture here while the rest of the Bay Area urbanized.

The purpose of the Ag Preserve was not seen at the time as simply about the protection of an agricultural industry against urban development. It was, in the words of Supervisor Jack Ferguson at the time, that the people of Napa "wish to create for themselves the environment in which they wish to live, and for future generations." It was not about protecting an industry, but a way of life. 

Measure C, likewise, is all about the environment in which we wish to live.

Will there be economic impacts to the initiative? Perhaps. But they are as unpredictable as those of the 1968 decision.

And unlike 50 years ago, there is much less danger that the impacts will affect current property owners like Mr. Smith. The woodlands protected by the initiative are a limit on future development, most likely undertaken by future owners.

As they were in 1968, the negative implications are probably greater for the real estate industry than the wine industry. And for agricultural enterprises and a rural way of life, now as then, dampening the real estate market is a very good thing.

There may be vintners and growers sitting on undeveloped woodland that they had always hoped to plant or sell off to some corporation or plutocrat. With further woodland removal restricted, they can console themselves with the increased value of their existing vineyards.

There are probably those that see this as an infringement on their ability to expand their wine production. But it's not the quantity of Napa wine that has led to it's success but it's quality.

Indeed, the limited quantity of wine produced in the county is probably a part of its success. As long as Napa's vintners remain committed to quality over quantity, the wine industry can remain healthy, as it is now, whether the hills are clothed in oaks or vines.

The property rights argument, as Mr. Smith presents it in his rants, seems more a philosophical thing, an indignation that government, or mere voters, should curtail his rights. Like it or not, we live in a world of laws that proscribe our rights, and while there can be bad ones, there are also good ones, like the Ag Preserve.

Measure C is also a good one. Mr. Smith's net worth may be affected by the watershed initiative - though I doubt it - but as with the Ag Preserve, Napa County will be a better environment in which to live, now and for future generations.

Bill Hocker


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