Appeals court stalls controversial Napa County vineyard project

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A state appeals court has ruled that Napa County violated state law in approving the controversial Walt Ranch vineyard development just east of the city of Napa by not properly considering the project’s effect on climate change, especially since it involves cutting down 14,000 trees.

The First Appellate District Court on Monday decided that county officials did not properly show how preservation of an unspecified swath of woodlands on the site would offset the harm to the climate by the tree removals. The court sent the case back to the trial judge for the next move in the 11-year battle between the Hall family and a group of community activists.

“The county violated the law when approving the project … that needs to be addressed and resolved,” said Aruna Prabhala, an attorney for the Center for Biological Diversity, a nonprofit that challenged the latest version of the project approved by the Napa County Board of Supervisors in December 2016. “We see this as a victory for the Napa forest and its climate.”

The project originally proposed in 2008 is backed by Craig and Kathryn Hall, owners of the Hall and Walt wine labels. Craig Hall became a billionaire as a Dallas-area developer, while Kathryn Hall served as a prior U.S. ambassador to Austria.

Through the years the project had been scaled down on the 2,300-acre site in the Howell Mountains on the east side of the Napa Valley, from a proposed 397 vineyard acres to the 209 vineyard acres that the county approved.

Opponents took the approval to court, arguing that development would threaten the county’s watershed and the habitat.

Mike Reynolds, president of Hall Wines, said that his company was pleased the court rejected most of the arguments that opponents raised before the appeals court. “We are pleased about the Appellate Court’s decision. There were 20 arguments challenging the project and the court agreed with Napa County on 19 of 20 decisions,” Reynolds said.

The Halls are known for their Hall Wines in St. Helena on Highway 29 with its iconic rabbit sculpture raising up above the vineyard. They have ventured into Sonoma County with their Walt label — specializing in pinot noir and chardonnay — with a tasting room in Sonoma for the last 10 years and since 2014 own 75 vineyard acres near Highway 116 between Cotati and Sebastopol.

The couple recently acquired a 12-acre vineyard in Healdsbrug where it opened another tasting room on Westside Road for the Walt brand as well as its Baca label for zinfandel. The 1,800-square-foot tasting room features a custom-designed bar by artist Maggie Michael that overlooks the vineyard.

“We plan on continuing to be engaged in Sonoma County,” Reynolds said.

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