Measure C sparks debate over future of Napa County vineyards
Randy Dunn was worried about the future as he walked around his vineyards Thursday morning in the Howell Mountain wine region of Napa County.
Dunn has been farming the land since 1978, when he and his wife, Lori, bought a 5-acre parcel of cabernet sauvignon vines tucked around Douglas firs more than 1,400 feet above sea level. It was a time well before “cult cab” became part of the vernacular of Napa Valley and some prized wines sold for more than $1,000 a bottle.
Things have changed in Napa, Dunn contends. There is very little room left on the valley floor, he says, pushing rich investors and wine companies into the hills to carve out the remaining land left to plant vineyards in the country's most prized wine region.
“They don't know a thing about wines. They hire a project manager. They hire a vineyard consultant,” Dunn grumbled about some of his neighbors. “There is still a lot left to preserve. There is an incredible amount of hillside planting. Most people don't see it because it's tucked away somewhere. ... Enough is enough.”
Napa County residents will determine if “enough is enough” on June 5 when they vote on Measure C. The initiative would limit vineyard development on hills and mountains to provide greater protection to watersheds and oak woodlands, the latter of which covered more than 167,000 acres, or about 33 percent of the county's overall area before last year's wildfires.
While the election essentially centers on water quality and availability, both sides concede that voters will likely be taking more into account when they enter the voting booth. The fate of Measure C will serve as a Rorschach test on how the county's 140,000 residents feel about the wine industry, from the traffic jams along Highway 29, the scarcity of affordable housing and the rising price of land, which now exceeds $400,000 per acre in some prime locations.
Opponents, represented by the major local business groups, worry that those outside issues could make it more difficult for their campaign, especially as some believe the valley has turned into an adult Disneyland for tourists.
“We should take the emotion out of this discussion,” said Measure C opponent Jeri Hansen-Gill, chief executive officer of Sustainable Napa County and a member of the Napa County Planning Commission. “Emotional responses are not a great way to legislate.”
The results will reverberate well beyond the county lines. Sonoma County activists are following the debate and stand to press their case if the measure passes.
“It would be a heads-up to our Board of Supervisors,” said Padi Selwyn, co-chairwoman of Preserve Rural Sonoma County. Her group has been disappointed that the board has turned its attention away from efforts to curb winery tourism in the aftermath of October wildfires.
The Napa measure is a result of a three-year push by community activists and environmentalists, including a 2016 campaign that never made it to the ballot. The effort took an interesting course last year when it appeared that environmentalists and leading figures in the wine industry were poised to strike a grand bargain on the issue.
Proponents Mike Hackett and Jim Wilson received a call last February from Rex Stults, government relations director for Napa Valley Vintners, the wine trade group that is arguably the most politically powerful force in Napa County. Stults inquired whether his group could find common ground with them.
The community activists worked with Stults and two other wine leaders - Michael Honig, president of Honig Vineyard & Winery in Rutherford and Russ Weis, general manager of Silverado Vineyards in Napa - to craft a measure that could be supported by the trade group, Hackett said.
“We started out as suspicious and ended up as friends. It was a true compromise,” he said.
Honig and Stults checked with their board throughout the negotiations, Hackett said, but could not get support on the final product in September. Some members of the trade group were adamantly against the deal and Honig put out a statement on Oct. 2 that said “it has become evident that there is a lack of consensus among (Napa Valley Vintners) members and others in the community regarding this action.”
The environmentalists decided to gather signatures to place the measure on the ballot. They contend that fewer oak trees in the watershed will reduce groundwater levels, lead to more erosion and threaten wildlife.
“We need to make sure we aren't gambling with our water future,” said Hackett, who is also a member of the Save Rural Angwin nonprofit group.
Measure C would allow up to 795 acres of oak woodlands to be removed around hills and mountains of the county, starting the count from September 2017. Trees destroyed by wildfires would not count against the total. Landowners would need a special permit to cut down such trees beyond that level. New vineyards would not qualify as a reason for the permits to be granted and would face stringent conditions.