A border war is brewing between Napa and Sonoma counties. Of course a winery is in the middle of it

A vintner whose property straddles both counties wants supervisors to adjust the lines to make Napa County 3.4 acres larger, but it may not be that easy.|

The Sonoma Democrat, an ancestral forefather of this newspaper, sounded definitive in 1877 when it wrote: “It is gratifying to be able to state that the vexed question of boundary between this County and Napa, is at last settled in accordance with the survey recently made by Capt. Kingsbury, under the direction of Surveyor General Minis, and that there is to be no more contests about the matter.”

The pronouncement may have been premature.

Four years later, a boundary dispute between the two counties wound up before the United States Supreme Court. In that case, a large property owner named A. Borel wrung $4,000 out of the Napa County tax collector after demonstrating that the parcel in question was actually on the Sonoma side of the line (and after Sonoma County refused to relinquish the funds to its neighbor).

Flash-forward through nearly 150 years of border peace to the summer of 2023, and hostilities may be about to erupt once more as a winery owner whose property straddles both counties seeks to redraw the boundary ever so slightly.

OK, perhaps “hostilities” demands quotation marks here. As far as anyone knows, no bunkers are being constructed, no muskets loaded, no demilitarized zones established. But a winery owner’s request has county officials on both sides scratching their heads and combing through the history books.

“I think it’s relatively rare,” Sonoma County Surveyor Jon Olin said. “I had the same question posed to me by the Permit Sonoma director, Tennis Wick. He wanted to know if I knew of any recent similar county line adjustments.”

Olin does not. So he posted a question about it on a surveyors’ forum, where topography wonks discuss issues of the day. As of Tuesday afternoon, he hadn’t gotten any answers.

In fact, no one The Press Democrat spoke to for this story seemed to know for sure when this had most recently happened in the North Bay. There is clear guidance in the California Government Code for resolving county line dilemmas. But it seems to be used very rarely.

This all started when Sheldon Richards applied to Napa County for a change to the use permit at his winery, Paloma Vineyard.

Paloma sits at the top of Spring Mountain Road. It has been in Richards’ family since 1983, when his parents, Barbara and Jim Richards, began clearing, planting and cultivating merlot, syrah and cabernet sauvignon grapes at rarefied elevation. It’s a lovely parcel that sometimes floats like an island when the marine layer socks in the valleys of Sonoma and Napa below with fog.

The Richards family has always paid its property taxes to Napa County. They acquired their use permits through that county and cast ballots there.

Then came Sheldon’s recent permit modification application. Among the requirements was a survey by a civil engineer showing all relevant project boundaries.

Imagine everyone’s surprise when the civil engineer discovered that about 3.4 acres of the Paloma property are actually in Sonoma County.

Even more alarming, the correct county line, according to the survey, runs right through Paloma’s winery building.

“Sheldon has an approved Napa County use permit,” said Richards’ St. Helena-based attorney, Lester Hardy. “The winery structure was built through a Napa County use permit. But Napa has no jurisdiction over Sonoma County. So this discovery basically brought the use permit modification process to a complete halt.”

Richards welcomed a Press Democrat photographer onto his vineyard land, but didn’t want to discuss his boundary request on the record, for fear of undermining the political process.

He will have some hurdles to clear.

On one hand, thanks to legislation passed in 1985, there is very little state involvement in the process. California pretty much leaves it to the counties to fight among themselves over boundaries, as long as the request fits certain parameters. For example, boundaries can’t move more than 5 miles. They can’t reduce the area of any affected county by more than 5%, or reduce the population of a county by more than 5%.

Richards’ request is puny by comparison. The Napa-Sonoma line would shift, at its widest point of adjustment, by about 120 feet. Discounting coyotes and turkeys, the population is zero. Even Richards, who lives on the 17-acre Paloma property, is outside the affected area.

Still, there are some boxes to check.

As a Napa County resident, he is applying to that county’s Board of Supervisors to initiate the shift. As Hardy described it, he has forwarded a petition for change to the board’s clerk, who will determine whether Richards got the required signatures. If the petition is complete, the supervisors will set a date for a hearing.

“If the clerk made a determination tomorrow, the hearing would be 60-90 days from tomorrow,” Hardy explained.

At the hearing, supervisors will open the floor to anyone lodging an oral or written protest. Considering no neighboring properties would be affected, Hardy said, “I don’t think that anyone will care very much.”

Napa County Supervisor Anne Cottrell, whose Upvalley district would stand to increase by a few acres if Richards’ bid is successful, said she couldn’t comment because county staff had not yet produced a report.

If Cottrell and her fellow Napa County supes approve the request, it will then go before the Sonoma County board through a similar process. Both bodies would have to approve the change.

If they do, they will then have to file a Statement of Boundary Change with the California Board of Equalization, along with other required documentation such as certified election results, a written geographic description of the area, relevant maps and any associated fees.

The statement must be filed with the Board of Equalization by Dec. 1 to affect any tax assessments in 2024.

A county boundary adjustment could indeed have potential property tax ramifications, according to Sonoma County Assessor Deva Proto — but in this case, they would be minimal. Any taxes flowing to Sonoma County from Paloma Vineyard’s mobile 3.4 acres would depend on things like when the property was purchased, how much the Richards family paid and how the land is being used.

Even the presence of the winery building isn’t likely to be a big deal.

“In general, if there are structures on two shared parcels, the structure would go to one of the parcels (for tax purposes),” Proto said. “In this case, if Napa is already taxing him for the structure, we wouldn’t double-tax him.”

Quandaries like this one seem to have been rampant in the early days of California statehood, when county lines were loosely defined at best. Things tightened up in the Mayacamas Mountains in 1877, when surveyor J.T. Kingsbury made a painstaking attempt to set an accurate dividing line between Napa and Sonoma, two of California’s original 27 counties.

Kingsbury began at the summit of Mount St. Helena and set out with a satchel of 3-foot iron stakes. Each stake was chiseled at the tip with an S on one side and an N on the other. Kingsbury walked the rugged land and planted 52 of them, at precise 1-mile intervals, until he reached the mouth of Huichica Creek in the Carneros wetlands.

Over the years, though, some of the markers disappeared. Others were destroyed when crews cut fire roads. Future surveyors and property owners were left with a lot of guesswork.

The situation gradually deteriorated until 2009, when Sonoma County, using $600,000 from a state Monument Preservation Fund, hired 18 local surveying firms to retrace Kingsbury’s path using modern methods. That retracing more or less laid the groundwork for Sheldon Richards’ dilemma.

“It so happens that the area where Paloma is, that turned out to be one of the areas with the most agricultural activity,” said Hardy, the attorney. “It’s an area where people did, early on and ever since, maintain vineyards. Farming, discing, plowing — they altered the topography. That’s the area where surveyors had to work the hardest to reestablish the line.”

The Richards’ bad luck, apparently, was unwittingly plunking their winery right on top of that line.

You can reach Phil Barber at 707-521-5263 or phil.barber@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @Skinny_Post.

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