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.