Napa mulls restrictions on winery expansion

NAPA - The Napa County Board of Supervisors began grappling Tuesday with the politically contentious issue of how to better regulate winery expansion to limit the congestion that critics contend has turned this agricultural valley into an overrun tourist playground.

The board started to debate proposals put forth by a 17-member citizen advisory committee and further recommendations by the county’s Planning Commission, as well as an analysis of the items by county staff. Overall, 22 public hearings have been held in the past nine months.

Board members did not vote on any regulations, but instructed staff to further work on the proposals. Supervisors hope to adopt new rules in the next year that will bring some clarity to the future of the wine industry, which generated $1.6 billion in visitor spending last year while snarling the county’s planning process in time-consuming arguments over winery permits. It will continue the debate Jan. 5.

The controversy in Napa echoes an ongoing debate across California’s Wine Country. Sonoma County has formed a task force to study the problems associated with winery development and events, while other counties, such as Santa Barbara and San Luis Obispo, also are tackling related issues on wine tourism.

Napa supervisors heard from 73 speakers, part of a crowd that spilled into four overflow rooms to discuss the topic, arguably the most hotly debated issue in the county of about 140,000 residents.

Community activists contend that winery growth has clogged main arteries such as Highway 29 and Silverado Trail and drawn an influx of tourists that has changed the nature of the agrarian county. One critic called it “binge tourism,” citing a news report on high rates of traffic accidents compared to other Bay Area counties.

Wine industry critics contend that wineries are not held accountable, noting that eight out of 20 wineries audited by the county exceeded their production or visitor limits in 2013. Last year, three out of 18 had violations.

“We need to move away from the honor system that this industry was built on here. It’s clearly no longer being honored,” said Geoff Ellsworth, an art gallery owner in St. Helena.

Wine allies turn out

But the wine industry is the dominant economic force in the county, and its organizations and allies came out Tuesday to fight against what they termed as burdensome regulations, arguing that such curbs could harm a booming economy where the unemployment rate was 4.2 percent in October, the fifth-lowest in California.

Stuart Smith, winemaker at Smith-Madrone Vineyards in St. Helena, said that some of the Planning Commission’s recommendations “are intended to punish our industry.”

Smith called the opponents “a small, well-organized vocal group of critics who are mean-spirited.” He further added, “They are driven by emotion rather than fact.”

Some speakers called for a pause on any new regulation. Visitors are critical to the local wine industry, especially to small wineries that need to sell directly to consumers because they cannot break through onto crowded retail shelves.

Board members focused largely on proposals by a citizen task force, which was formally named the Agricultural Protection Advisory Committee. The panel proposed a series of items to better limit growth, but made it apply only to new wineries, excluding the more than 450 wineries currently operating in the county. That was a key concession to pick up the support of the Napa Valley Vintners, a trade group that represents Napa County wineries.

Under the task force’s proposals, no more than 20 percent of winery property of 40 acres or less could be used for production, hospitality and residential purposes; certain wine caves and outdoor visitor areas would be included in the definition of hospitality areas; and certain small wineries would go through permitting by a zoning administrator rather than the full Planning Commission. The task force also called for a limit to variances for new wineries and the creation of a matrix for evaluating winery use permits.

Estate designation

The Planning Commission later modified some of those recommendations, such as adding a requirement that at least 75 percent of the grapes used by small wineries must be estate-grown, creating a higher threshold for such status. Most notably, it found that any future expansion of existing wineries might be subject to new regulations that emerge from the task force process.

Those changes triggered immediate opposition from the wine industry.

“These changes raise the real possibility that rights granted to these wineries by the County may be revoked or modified in a way that constitutes a ‘regulatory taking’ under applicable law, and run counter to precedent established in the adoption of the WDO (winery definition ordinance), which explicitly protected the historical rights of existing wineries,” David Duncan, chairman of the Napa Valley Vintners, wrote to Board of Supervisors Chairman Diane Dillon in a Dec. 4 letter.

Vote in 2016

During the board meeting, supervisors tried to provide staff with direction on ways to shape a set of ordinances that could be voted upon in 2016.

They expressed some concern the matrix proposal could be too rigid, and asked for an outline from staff that would help spell out more flexible guidelines. They also signaled support for a provision that would detail when it would be acceptable to grant a variance to a winery from planning rules.

Commissioners also said they wanted a self-reporting system for wineries to ensure that they were in compliance with their permits, but some suggested that it would have to be implemented over a longer time frame. Dillon noted that code compliance is “where the most aggravation is out there” for residents.

You can reach Staff Writer Bill Swindell at 521-5223 ?or On Twitter ?@BillSwindell.

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