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Napa County examines ways to regulate winery expansion

NAPA - Napa County officials on Tuesday took initial steps that may rein in winery development amid a contentious debate between community activists, who argue that the valley has turned into an adult Disneyland that brings traffic and degrades the environment, and the county’s powerful wine industry, which warned local officials to protect the economic engine that drives the region.

After eight hours, the Napa County Board of Supervisors and the Planning Commission in a joint meeting approved four items intended to build a consensus on the most hotly debated issue in the county of 140,000 residents: How much is too much when it comes to winery expansion?

The issue echoes a fiery debate in neighboring Sonoma County over the spread of wineries and vineyards. The two counties lie at the economic heart of California’s Wine Country, accounting for nearly 45 percent of the state’s $1.9 billion winegrape crop following a dramatic expansion that saw vineyard acreage increase by more than 50 percent in both counties over the past two decades.

The Napa officials agreed to create an advisory committee to review the county’s winery and conservation regulations with a report due back by August. In addition, a forum will be held with cities to discuss joint efforts on regional land issues; and officials directed county staff to draw up a draft traffic mitigation fee as well as complete a climate action plan.

“There’s a lot of energy around this issue, and we need to deliver,” Board Chairwoman Diane Dillon said.

However, officials did not put a moratorium on approval of new wineries or variances for existing ones to modify their operating plans. County staff argued that the pace of winery development is in sync with expectations of the county’s 2008 general plan and that the 41 pending permits do not pose an immediate threat to the public welfare.

Still, many had qualms with the pace of winery development in Napa County, where each new proposed project now draws opposition from a vocal section of the community. Critics argue that the county’s 467 wineries are enough and that vintners have gotten away from their mission of producing wine, making their wineries into event centers featuring everything from elaborate dinners to film viewings.

“The justification, frankly, for putting another new winery in our ag resource area is much thinner than it has ever been in the past,” Supervisor Mark Luce said.

On March 4, the Planning Commission gave approval for Melka Wines in St. Helena to build a production facility on its Silverado Trail property despite opposition from community members who said it would blight the county’s landscape. Owners Philippe and Cherie Melka got a variance from the county to have their winery built only 165 feet from the road, instead of the 600-foot limit called for under the county’s 1990 winery ordinance.

Some debates have lingered for years. For example, more than 1,000 people have signed a petition against a proposed 365-acre Walt Ranch vineyard between Napa and Lake Berryessa. Besides potential threats to the land, residents are concerned about traffic, especially during special events.

Traffic was a major concern as residents have complained about the increase on Highway 29 and the Silverado Trail, especially when congestion doubles on weekends. A study conducted for the county found that 17 percent of car trips into the county were to wineries.

“This valley has become an adult Disneyland,” county resident Zia Shepp complained.

C ounty staff found most wineries are in the hillside areas, but most visitation is located on the valley floor. The majority of production, however, is located around the airport industrial area.

The wine industry is a crucial funding source for Napa County and its cities, bringing in $51.7 million in tax revenue in 2012 with a total payroll of $300 million and 10,500 jobs. Visitor taxes provided 66 percent of the town of Yountville’s budget and 49 percent of the city of Calistoga’s budget.

“If there were no visitors to Napa Valley, locals would have to spend $10,000 more per year to keep the economy of Napa County as it is now,” said Larry Florin, director of housing and intergovernmental affairs for the county. He added that each household would pay an additional $1,000 in taxes under such a scenario.

The expansion comes as smaller wineries are finding they need to bring more customers into their tasting rooms. Because small wineries have difficulty attracting wholesalers, they must rely on direct sales to customers though their wine clubs and the Internet, said Michael Mondavi, whose family name is synonymous with Napa wine and who owns two vineyards in the county.

“Today, most of the smaller wineries cannot survive selling exclusively through wholesalers,” Mondavi said. “Our wholesaler in California has 120,000 (units). We offer them about 20.”

Some speakers suggested tailoring new regulations that fall short of a moratorium, such as expanding the current 10-acre minimum for opening a winery on county land to 40 acres.

Dillon noted that county staff will report back to supervisors next month with recommendations on how to tighten oversight of winery use permits. An audit last year found that almost half of the wineries in Napa County did not comply in 2013, either by exceeding their production or visitor limits. Dillon also said the board is working on examining water usage that will include wineries.

The issue is not limited to Napa. Sonoma County vintners also have faced increasing public opposition over the expansion of wineries and tasting rooms hosting special events. For example, earlier this year Sonoma County planning commissioners rejected a proposed winery by celebrity chef Guy Fieri on a rural road west of Santa Rosa.

Sonoma County Winegrowers President Karissa Kruse attended the public meeting Tuesday to observe the debate.

You can reach Staff Writer Bill Swindell at 521-5223 or bill.swindell@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @BillSwindell.

Bill Swindell

Business, Beer and Wine, The Press Democrat  

In the North Coast, we are surrounded by hundreds of wineries along with some of the best breweries, cidermakers and distillers. These industries produce an abundance of drinks as well as good stories – and those are what I’m interested in writing. I also keep my eye on our growing cannabis industry and other agricultural crops, which have provided the backbone for our food-and-wine culture for generations.

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