Napa supervisors eye winery visitor impacts

NAPA -- Amid calls for a moratorium on new vineyards and wineries in Napa County because of concerns about visitor traffic and water shortages, county government's top decision-makers on such projects directed staff to give them a clearer view on the situation by this fall and develop solutions for streamlining the environmental-review process and informing more neighbors about project proposals.

[caption id="attachment_92880" align="alignright" width="180"] Mark Luce[/caption]

Concerns about how the wine industry grows and uses land in Napa County have been around as far back as the establishment of the trailblazing agricultural preserve in 1968 and the Winery Definition Ordinance (WDO) of 1990 plus subsequent additions. But they have reached a new fervor in the past few years, as direct-to-consumer (DTC) marketing, particularly exclusive experiences on estate property, is seen as the lifeline for the luxury side of the business, a local plan for greenhouse-gas emissions curtailment emerges and California's farms are being increasingly scrutinized for use of groundwater, especially in a year with a governor's emergency drought declaration.[poll id="121"]

The confluence of all these streams of public policy flowed through a joint meeting of the Board of Supervisors and the Planning Commission on May 20. The two meet annually in May and October to discuss land-use planning issues, but the urgency of this meeting was exacerbated by increasing public complaints that they aren't finding out about wine-related projects soon enough, concern from applicants that the environmental review process was taking too long, neighbor worries about new wells and effects on aquifers, a number of appeals of project approvals and rise in the hospitality-related elements of projects.

"The question is, are we at capacity for vineyard acreage, and what are the cumulative impacts?" said Mark Luce, board chairman, after an hour of discussion among the supervisors, commissioners and staff. "What is the relationship between visitation and impacts? Do we start increasing acreage requirements?"

[caption id="attachment_92879" align="alignright" width="160"] Bill Dodd[/caption]

Supervisor Bill Dodd said he had discussed with former Supervisor Mel Varrelman in 2002 about doubling the minimum property size for winery proposals outside the urban areas to 20 acres, because proposals were coming in for 10-acre properties with fewer than 10 acres of vines. Mr. Dodd suggested temporary limitations on wineries built on hillsides until the groundwater situation is addressed and requiring wineries to use grapes off their own properties in the county.

"It may not alleviate everything, but it might take a lot of heartburn out of it for more people," he said.

The board tasked staff to work with wine industry groups, other agencies and other groups to find answers to these questions raised by Supervisor Dodd in time for the October joint meeting.

While the joint meeting on May 20 was more about goal-setting than action, the board did direct staff to put off work on the climate action plan until the studies on cumulative visitor impacts are completed this fall. The Napa County Transportation and Planning Agency has been conducting such a study and plans to have it completed in September.

Part of an hour of public comment from 21 speakers, Nancy Tamarisk, vice chairwoman of the Sierra Club's Napa Group, recommended the county's climate action plan move forward as a way to deal both streamline environmental review and address visitor traffic.

"If we had the climate action plan in place, it would address the prolonged EIRs, because there is a simple process for dealing with the climate action plan impact of new visitors," she said.

 Her impression, she told the supervisors, was that the wine industry had "sandbagged" the proposed plan a year and a half ago because applicants would have trouble meeting greenhouse-gas emissions requirements.

[caption id="attachment_60382" align="alignright" width="160"] Andy Beckstoffer[/caption]

Andy Beckstoffer, whose Beckstoffer Vineyards grows winegrapes on a few thousand North Coast acres, urged the supervisors and commissioners to stop all waivers of conditions under the WDO.

"No more waivers on negative declarations on environmental issues and hospitality issues," he said. Mr. Beckstoffer also called for no new winery projects to be approved until cumulative impacts are studied.

While direct-to-consumer sales are on the rise for premium wineries, it's a trend that may not last, yet the provision for visitor traffic to support it will be in place, he said. Rather, vintners should be encouraged to locate visitor services to urban areas, as called for in the county General Plan, he added.

Rob Mondavi Jr., grandson of the late Napa Valley vintner icon Robert Mondavi, cautioned the supervisors against putting a halt to wine-related projects.

"The word moratorium is going to create some big battle lines," he said. "We don't compete with just California wines. We compete with First Growths and wines from Australia, New Zealand and Chile. This is fragile what we've created here. We enjoy prices that are fourfold what our competitors in other areas of California enjoy. ... The wheels can come off this bus very quickly."

[caption id="attachment_92878" align="alignright" width="199"] Rex Stults[/caption]

Local vintner and winegrape grower trade groups have worked with environmental groups and the public to create third-party-verified sustainability programs, such as Napa Green Certified Land program developed with the Sierra Club and Friends of the River, and can do so again, Rex Stults, head of industry relations for Napa Valley Vintners.

Leaders of that organization met with counterparts of Napa County Farm Bureau, Napa Valley Grapegrowers and Winegrowers of Napa County mid-May to tackle water-use, traffic, winery visitation, grape supply and the 75 percent-from-the-appellation rule.

"It's undeniable that direct-to-consumer is critical to the financial success of many Napa Valley wineries," he said after the public meeting.

"Napa Valley may be a famous name in the world of wine, but in the end, it is a small agricultural community with a track record for solving issues," he added.

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