Napa vintners pull support for new rules on development

Napa Valley Vintners is withdrawing support for a project designed to build consensus on how Napa County can better control winery development and expansion.|

NAPA - An advisory panel charged with seeking a consensus on how Napa County can better control winery development and expansion appears to be faltering in its mission after a prominent industry group indicated Monday that it can no longer go forward without grandfathered protections to almost 500 wineries currently operating in the tourist mecca.

The 17-member Agricultural Protection Advisory Committee is attempting to recommend new rules for wineries given significant community concern over traffic, noise and events that critics contend have turned this agriculture community into an adult Disneyland, ruining their quality of life.

The effort mirrors one in Sonoma County, where planning officials have formed a 21-member advisory panel of winery executives, environmentalists and rural residents to set new standards for events at wineries in unincorporated areas. The Sonoma panel is scheduled to issue its report by next spring.

The Napa panel, however, is under a much tighter schedule to wrap up its work by Aug. 24 and make a presentation to the Planning Commission on Sept. 2. But it appears that a consensus on the recommendations will fail, given opposition by the Napa Valley Vintners and other allies on the committee. The panel needs a supermajority of 12 votes for adoption, and all recommendations must be finalized at the end of the process as part of the committee’s final report.

During a panel meeting on Monday, Peter McCrea, owner of Stony Hill Vineyards and the representative of the Napa Valley Vintners, said he could not support a proposed matrix that would spell out guidelines for winery permitting in Napa County, from production capacity and oversight to visitor limits and retail efforts.

Each of those issues is controversial, but McCrea said Napa Valley Vintners pulled its support for the matrix because it believes wineries would have to follow the new rules when they apply to amend their existing use permits in front of the Planning Commission.

“We have reached the conclusion that we cannot support this anymore as viable product,” he said.

Since 2005, approximately 50 percent of the permit applications have come from new wineries while the other half have been from existing wineries that want to modify their current permits, said David Morrison, director of Planning, Building and Environmental Services. As of March, Napa County had listed 467 wineries in its database.

The vintners’ abrupt reversal of support came last week as result of concern that at least one county official believed existing wineries would fall under the proposed rubric, said Rex Stults, government relations director for the Napa Valley Vintners. His group had been operating under the assumption that existing wineries would be excluded from the framework.

“Once it became very evident that there is a strong likelihood that (the matrix) would apply to new and existing wineries, the appetite for moving forward with that proposal within the industry went away pretty quickly,” Stults said.

Stults refused to name who within county government signaled the framework would apply to existing wineries.

But Michelle Benvenuto, executive director of the Winegrowers of Napa County, said that Morrison mentioned in a meeting outside of panel deliberations that the matrix ?could be applied to wineries retroactively. The debate soon began exposing divisions between the industry and community activists and environmentalists.

Morrison acknowledged that he has said the matrix could be applied retroactively, but said Monday that the spirit and intent of the measure “would likely be prospective in nature, applying only to future applications to the extent feasible.” The outcome, he said, will ultimately depend on the recommendations of the panel and the Planning Commission, and the decision of the Board of Supervisors.

Some on the panel pushed for greater oversight on amended winery permits. Bruce Phillips, a panel member representing the Land Trust of Napa County, put forth a proposal that would apply the framework to new and existing wineries, but only for the latter if particular areas were not addressed under their current use permit. The Phillips proposal was defeated on a 6-10 vote.

Another proposal by Yountville Mayor John Dunbar to allow the matrix to apply to new wineries also failed on an 8-8 vote. At least one winery representative objected to the Dunbar proposal because many of the issues within the overall framework have not been fully vetted.

“I find it very unfortunate because, at least from my perspective, I never saw anything except for the intent for this to apply to new proposals going forward,” said Ted Hall, chair of the panel and chief executive officer and president of Long Meadow Ranch.

Phillips told fellow panel members he was “beginning to lose hope” for further deliberations on the framework unless winery groups “are prepared to productively deliberate.”

Despite the setback, the panel has made progress from its previous meetings, including recommending that planning variances should be the exception and approved only when supported by findings; and that the county expand its auditing program of wineries and strengthen its code enforcement, such as wine production and visitor limits.

In fact, Napa County officials today are slated to start discussion on beefing up its compliance codes. Only 20 wineries are audited per year, and a grand jury report earlier this year found that 30 to 40 percent of the wineries audited were not in compliance with their permits from 2011 to 2013.

The Planning Commission and the Board of Supervisors is likely to revisit the debate, even if the panel cannot come to an overall agreement, Hall noted

“I guess my observation would be is whatever the outcome, we did leave tracks,” he said.

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