It’s hard not to sympathize with the task of the county Planning Commission in dealing with a burdensome volume of last minute, conflicting inputs about consequential applications that come before it.
Conflicting, because there appears to be a limitless supply of applicants who want to establish new wineries, or substantially enlarge existing ones, and an opposing body of public opinion that feels that enough is enough and that more wineries equal more traffic and a reduction of quality of life in Napa Valley.
And consequential, because everybody who lives or works in the valley knows that increased traffic engendered by workers in, or visitors to, the new wineries has grown alongside the increased number of wineries in recent years.
And the increase is undeniable, as a recent Register story reports. In 2015, 2016 and 2017 the Planning Commission has approved 26 new wineries and 32 major modifications of existing wineries. It has turned down just two such applications. Each approved application was intended to allow an increase in wine production. And the increased production of wine entails an increase in the number of employee-days required to do everything from the vineyard work to loading the finished bottles of wines on trucks to take them out of the valley.
It is also no secret that the valley lacks affordable and available housing for the incremental winery employees required to support the 26 new and 32 major modified wineries approved by the Commission. So a great many of the incremental employees, perhaps a vast majority, become incremental commuters on the highways coming from the locations where they can find affordable and available housing. Yet in case after case the Commission has found that the application created “no significant impact.”
But that’s just the winery end of the impact. Wineries are supported by visitors, most of whom live elsewhere and many of whom need accommodations to stay overnight in the valley. Thus an increasing demand for hotel rooms. And hotels are staffed by employees, many of whom also cannot find a place to live in the valley and become more commuters.
Now the 26 new wineries and the 32 major modifications, and a number of hotels, have probably been good for their owners. And they have created jobs for new employees who are presumably happy to have the jobs. And they have generated welcome incremental tax revenues for local governments.
But have they improved or impaired the quality of life for the residents not directly employed in the wineries or hotels? Maybe that’s not a question the Planning Commission has authority or competence to consider. But the Commission’s actions are the cause of a change, and cumulatively there has been an impact, and it is significant. If the Commission cannot address the cumulative impact of its actions, then the answer must be found elsewhere.
An initiative to control the growth of hillside vineyards will be voted on this year. It is a rather indirect means to affect traffic and quality of life, but it cuts in that direction. Fewer new vineyards mean fewers grapes to supply new winemaking capacity, either new wineries or major modifications. Less such capacity means fewer incremental commuters on the roads. Provided, however, there is an effectively enforced limitation on importing grapes from other areas for winemaking in Napa Valley, which is doubtful.
These are not easy issues and they need to be addressed. I think they will be addressed in the politics of the valley over coming years, even after the pending hillside vineyard initiative is decided. I cannot see how it is going to be politically acceptable to year after year continue to approve nearly every application for a new or enlarged winery.
The question may be: What are we trying to protect? The opportunity for winery owners to do more business? Or the quality of life of the other residents of the valley? If there is a way to do both, it is not obvious yet.
Full disclosure: In the 20-plus years I have lived in Napa, I have usually worked part-time in a number of different wineries. I count many winery owners and employees as my friends. Theirs is an admirable profession which brings pleasure to a great many people, myself included. I have enjoyed wine every day for about 50 years.