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Napa County OKs climate fix to controversial vineyard project, but environmental groups are skeptical

The backers of the Walt Ranch vineyard-development project northeast of Napa, stalled for five years amid legal challenges, are proposing more greenhouse gas mitigation to address problems a court found lacking in analysis of the climate impact from the planned removal of trees.

Napa County planning director David Morrison on Sept. 21 gave tentative approval to the project’s revised greenhouse mitigation plan, and that became final Oct. 1, according to county documents. The deadline for appealing that decision to the Board of Supervisors is Oct. 25, he told the Business Journal.

“Nothing has been filed to date,” Morrison said Wednesday.

And if none is filed by that time, the county will forward the addendum to the project erosion control plan’s environmental impact report back to Napa County Superior Court, he said. In early 2019, the court backed the county’s December 2016 certification of the report, and the 1st District Court of Appeals also did so in September 2019 — except for the greenhouse-gas emissions section. That matter was passed back to Superior Court, which in May 2020 called for the county to fix it.

Here’s what has changed in the updated greenhouse gas plan. Mitigation measure 6.1 of the previously certified EIR called for no less than 248 acres of oak woodland habitat to be permanently set aside on the 2,300-acre property, resulting in an estimated offset of 27,528 million tons of carbon dioxide emissions. The revision would set aside 124 acres on slopes no steeper than 30% and plant up to 33,580 native oaks, in addition to 525 other acres on the property that would have to be set aside for other protected species.

County-commissioned analysis by Ascent Environmental on the revision said that it would mitigate more than double the amount of carbon dioxide equivalent emissions in the original EIR, Morrison wrote in the notice of approval. Ascent found that the planting of nearly 17,000 trees, assuming 80% survival, would be needed to offset the planned removal of trees over 30 years.

The 2016 EIR was based on 507 acres of woodland that would be cleared for vineyards, but the final approved project was for 209 acres of vines on 316 cleared acres, with 14,281 trees.

But major wildfires in 2017 and 2020 burned 97% of the trees on the property, according to the county and a letter from applicant Hall Brambletree Associates LP, an affiliate of Hall Wines.

The new proposed measures don’t go far enough for some project opponents.

In one of the 50-plus comment letters the county received about the updated mitigation measures, the Center for Biological Diversity disputed the new offset calculations as “unclear and uncertain” and doubted that the new tree-planting program was “viable and would adequately mitigate the project’s impacts.”

The letter also challenged Hall Brambletree’s assertions about the fire damage to existing trees, that sequestered carbon in the trees had already been released into the atmosphere.

“This inaccurately assumes that the fires burned everything to the ground, no trees (or other vegetation) survived, no ecosystems that are either resilient to or dependent on wildfire, and that no carbon is stored in the soils or remaining tree trunks or other vegetation types,” wrote senior attorney Aruna Prabhala in the letter.

Prabhala pointed to a 2019 study on Pepperwood Preserve after the 2017 Tubbs Fire that found 73% of the trees and half the saplings survived overall, and even more did in areas burned at low to medium severity.

"We are still considering all of our legal options, including potentially filing an appeal,“ Prabhala wrote in an email to the Business Journal. ”We likely won’t finalize our decision until the end of next week.“

The Napa chapter of the Sierra Club also submitted a comment letter with concerns about the new mitigation measure.

“We have not yet decided what, if any, action to pursue,” Nick Cheranich, chapter chair, wrote the Business Journal in an email.

Jeff Quackenbush covers wine, construction and real estate. Before the Business Journal, he wrote for Bay City News Service in San Francisco. He has a degree from Walla Walla University. Reach him at jquackenbush@busjrnl.com or 707-521-4256.

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