Vine Notes: Breather needed on proposed winery restrictions

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Currently brewing once again in the Napa Valley is a monumental debate on land-use policies as agricultural, winery and residential interests come into conflict.

A small but vocal antigrowth group has been pressuring county officials and staff by attending each meeting of the Planning Commission and Board of Supervisors with picket signs, buttons and stickers and protesting all winery use permit applications. On March 10 all sides of the community crowded the Napa Valley Unified School District Auditorium — with a capacity of 650 — for a joint hearing of the Planning Commission and the Board of Supervisors, a marathon meeting that lasted all day.

The meeting concluded with the formation of the Agricultural Protection Advisory Committee (APAC), a 17 member ad hoc committee to advise the Planning Commission on cumulative growth. The APAC has a clear direction to examine current land use rights for wineries and to consider measures such as increasing the minimum parcel size, limiting the amount of visitation and events, and restricting current development standards, all of which augur an indirect mission to restrict the number of new or expanded wineries in Napa’s future.

There is no doubt that the beauty and desirability of the Napa Valley stems in part from the landmark land-use decision in 1968 to create an agricultural preserve, followed by the 1990 Agricultural Lands Preservation Initiative. Both protected the majority of the fertile valley floor and the hillside woodlands and watershed from development. These courageous endeavors were unprecedented in the United States. Similarly, the 1990 adoption of a Winery Definition Ordinance (WDO) further protected agriculture by limiting the size and activities allowable for wineries.

Given these abundant land use protections and restrictions, why is there controversy today? By and large, the strife is not neighboring farmers or competing vintners. Rather, it appears that the most vocal opposition to winegrowing activities comes from residents, frustrated by traffic and new construction, who want to halt development and preserve the current look and feel of the Napa Valley.

When the agricultural preserve was formed, the valley consisted predominantly of farms and large wineries. The preserve helped over the decades to raise the quality and the price of Napa Valley grapes by making agriculture the highest and best use of land in Napa County. The economics of luxury winemaking has also encouraged diversity, as small wineries and family farms have been able to succeed without resorting to large-scale production. This has led to the myriad boutique wineries that represent the distinctive “Napa” brand in the marketplace, and this in turn has driven its tourism industry. As wineries have proliferated, so has the amount of regarding development.

According to the Napa County Planning Division, there have been 482 use permits for wineries granted. Of these, 69 percent are small wineries, entitled to produce up to 50,000 gallons per year. The Napa Valley Vintners reports that of its more than 500 winery members, 79 percent produce fewer than 10,000 cases annually, or approximately 25,000 gallons, and 67 percent produce fewer than 5,000 cases.

The possible changes to the WDO that are under consideration have the potential to affect both existing and new small wineries. If the minimum parcel size is raised, new small wineries will become much more expensive and more difficult to develop. And if marketing and visitation privileges are restricted, many existing wineries may have to scale back on direct-to-consumer sales made on their premises.

As the community considers revising the legendary Winery Definition Ordinance, all parties would benefit from taking a step back and acknowledging the underlying issues: The Napa Valley depends economically on both its wine industry and on tourism, and both of these depend in turn on the continued viability of its agriculture. Continuing to balance the competing needs of agriculture, wineries, and residents will require creativity, stewardship, courage, and balance. In order for the 17-member committee — and the Planning Commission and Board of Supervisors — to attend to all parties’ needs, it is important that all parties’ voices are heard. If only those who oppose winegrowing are vocal, then they will drive the debate to the detriment of the wine industry.

If you are passionate about this topic or have a creative idea, do speak up and be heard at one of the public APAC hearings held every other Monday at 9 a.m. For more information, see the APAC web page (countyofnapa.org/PBES/APAC).

Katherine Philippakis is a partner with Farella Braun + Martel, LLP, and chairs the firm’s Wine Industry Practice Group. Kirsty Shelton Gerosa is a Farella land-use planner with a focus on the wine industry. They are based in the firm’s St. Helena office.

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