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The Napa County supervisors’ disconnect

The Napa County supervisors’ disconnect

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The long saga of the Mountain Peak application for a new 100,000-gallon winery with 14,500 annual visitors including mega-events at the end of the densely forested, 6.5-mile-long, dead-end Soda Canyon Road, a non-conforming Napa County Standards Road, was approved on May 18, 2021.

It was a second review of one previously approved by the supervisors just before the 2017 Atlas Peak fire. This review ordered by the Napa County Superior Court asked the supervisors to consider the effects of these fires which destroyed 134 of the 163 homes in the immediate area and claimed lives.

In granting their second approval, the supervisors determined that the fires provided no data compelling them to change their minds in spite of testimony after testimony by residents who could not escape because the single, flame-engulfed escape route was blocked by fallen trees while many more were airlifted by helicopters because they were trapped. If this were not enough, they disregarded the 1-mile-long limit Napa County standard for a cul-de-sac six times over.

The supervisors were willing to ignore scientific data adopted by the National Academy of Science which shows that 84% of all fires are caused by human activity. Common sense would dictate that the more people are introduced in our fire-prone areas, the higher the likelihood of fire. But it didn’t.

A few months ago, these same supervisors approved the Anthem Winery expansion on Redwood Road, including more visitors and events. They were undeterred by its eight wells, which successively kept running dry as were those of the neighboring residents. If this were not enough, they also granted 16 variances to the long driveway, trumping all Napa County standards for driveways.

By any evidentiary standard, these decisions by the board, endanger public safety. And while residents are facing mandatory water conservation orders, the BoS increases visitors by the tens of thousands, increases demand for low-wage industry earners for housing by enacting policies that increase water usage and deplete resident’s wells, an indication that our water table is being impaired.

None of these hair-raising actions by the board make common sense which poses the question: Why do these well-educated people make these kinds of decisions?

Many increasingly angry citizens accuse them of being in the pockets of the “industry,” others have even accused them of being immoral. I refuse to ascribe sinister motives to these people for actions which by all reasonable standards endanger the wellbeing of the public. My explanation is that they are acting under the duress of mounting costs to services and infrastructure which they are compelled to fund through more and more development fees.

Here is why this model puts us deeper and deeper into long-term deficits to our infrastructure of water, sewer, emergency services, fire protection, roads, power grid, workforce housing, schools, new personnel, pensions etc.

Eight years ago, I sponsored a public forum on growth. Three experts - two of them university professors - on tourism, traffic, and resort development determined that what used to be an agricultural economy has morphed (thanks to our supervisors) into a tourist economy. As the panel showed (Eben Fodor: “The Cost of Growth in Oregon,” 1998), each new home or resort unit leaves an uncollected long-term deficit of $ 26,500 — at least double that today multiplied by the hundreds of new hotel rooms and workforce housing units — in terms of long-term infrastructure costs.

The development fees collected by the county are means to keep county finances afloat in the short-term while the long-term costs keep mounting exponentially. If we need proof, it is the fact that we keep approving funding propositions for schools and roads one after the other. And they are a drop in the bucket.

Some may characterize the ever-increasing reliance on development fees as; “the supervisors being in the pockets of the industry.” Who can blame them when they see the supervisors at first turning a blind eye on violators of their own well-intentioned winery use permit rules, then “bringing them into compliance” by simply legalizing them, when they approve wineries in fire-prone areas where they should not be, when they grant variances on set-backs, road and cul-de-sac standards, allow increased water uses in the face of water shortages and unconscionably disregarding the need for safe evacuation routes when they see the culture of watering down standards — even ethical ones -- becoming ever more permissive.

On the other hand, just as the starving man who steals a slice of pizza, what else can these five people do once they have boarded the train they built over the past 20 years from which they cannot get off (taking us with them) until it eventually crashes?

Worse, getting off it becomes increasingly difficult by the continuous actions they keep taking.

George Caloyannidis

Calistoga

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