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Napa grapples with issue of balancing ag preservation and reasonable property rights

[caption id="attachment_13092" align="alignright" width="169" caption="Kay Philippakis"][/caption]

NAPA COUNTY - Recent efforts to transform a plot of vineyards near Yountville into six residential home slots have put the spotlight on lot line adjustment policies in Napa, and soon local officials will vote whether to tighten the ordinance governing the process, possibly curtailing future attempts to develop in the protected Wine Country valley.

On Aug. 20, the county will host the fourth public meeting to discuss the possibility of compelling applicants of major lot line adjustments to pursue environmental review, a process in Napa that has historically taken up to a year of additional planning and significant investment.

The agricultural preserve versus property owners' rights debate erupted several months ago following county approval to reconfigure several historically recognized parcels on a single 83-acre property. The vineyard land was recognized two years ago as having six parcels and was allowed through the Subdivision Map Act to overstep preserve mandates that plots be no smaller than 40 acres on the valley floor and 160 in the hills. The permits also changed the use of the land from agricultural to residential and agricultural.

The longtime farmer of the Trio C Vineyards just outside of Yountville, formerly Calness Vintners, was approved for the parcel certificates based on a pre-existing map from 1926 that proved the land was recognized as having six tracts. The 40-year grape grower Will Nord said he planned to build homes on the divided property for his children and grandchildren.

Neighbors and community groups, namely the Napa County Farm Bureau, pointed to the approval as an example of the susceptibility of the county's preserved land to development and suggested that the lot line adjustment process come with required California Environmental Quality Act review.

"The farm bureau does not oppose lot line adjustments, per se, only those which use the process to convert farm or ranchland to residential use," said bureau Vice President and Director Ron Taddei.

"The farm bureau is looking for clarification on lot line policies outlined in state law and implemented through local ordinances where there are some ambiguities on what is required."

The county organized a group of stakeholders including local Realtors, grape growers, environmentalists and others to discuss the mapping regulations during four meetings. Sometime after the last meeting this month, the Board of Supervisors will officially vote whether to change its policy. Officials made a similar decision related to development of vineyards on a hillside, deciding in 2000 to implement an erosion control plan including mandatory environmental review of relevant projects.

"The erosion plan ended up crippling hillside development. Environmental review was taking five years and costing upwards of half million," said Farella, Braun & Martel partner Katherine Philippakis.

"It would be different if the CEQA process in Napa was as streamlined as Sonoma, but that just isn't the case. ... It is a dramatic policy change that would affect a lot of people that are not looking necessarily to develop a huge building project."

She said often lot line adjustments are used for estate planning purposes or in cases where a property owner is cash-strapped and wants to sell a portion of their property to a neighbor.

At the same time, leaders also plan to consider whether the county should limit the number of parcels a property owner can request lot line adjustments to and if they should implement the right to involuntarily merge neighboring historic parcels that are smaller than the required 40 or 160 acres and owned by the same person.