Napa County revokes Mountain Peak winery approval

After years of contentious Napa County hearings and court sessions, the controversial proposal to build the Mountain Peak winery in the mountains northeast of the city of Napa appears to be dead.

The county Board of Supervisors on Tuesday complied with a Napa County Superior Court order and revoked its 2017 approval of Mountain Peak. If the project is to proceed, it must have an environmental impact report done.

But there's no evidence the project will continue. The 42-acre property at 3265 Soda Canyon Road with vineyards and a home is listed for sale. Interim Planning, Building and Environmental Services Director Brian Bordona said the owners formally withdrew their application on Wednesday.

Supervisors had no debate over unanimously pulling back the five-year-old approval.

"It is that simple — the court said to do this, and we are doing this," Board of Supervisors Chairperson Ryan Gregory said.

Members of the Soda Canyon Group and other opponents had been disappointed by past board votes on Mountain Peak winery. This time, they clapped after the vote was taken.

"I just hope it doesn't come to this again, over future projects. ... When there is this level of community concern and vocal opposition over a project, perhaps it would be a good time to listen to your constituents," Soda Canyon resident Amber Manfree told supervisors.

Mountain Peak winery is near the end of a narrow, 6-mile road that heads into mountains bordering Napa Valley. How much visitation and production should be allowed at proposed, remote wineries has become a contentious issue.

Project supporters filed an application in 2013 and went before the county Planning Commission in 2016 and early 2017, winning approval. Opponents appealed to the Board of Supervisors.

The board in August 2017 cleared Mountain Peak winery to produce up to 100,000 gallons of wine annually, have up to 14,300 tasting room visitors a year, and have up to 275 total visitors yearly at three marketing events.

Many Soda Canyon residents objected to a project of that size, saying among other things that the road could have trouble handling evacuations in the event of a wildfire or other emergency. The Soda Canyon Group sued in Napa County Superior Court.

One aspect of the dispute was how Napa County complies with the California Environmental Quality Act. The law requires agencies to, as a state website puts it, "look before they leap" and consider the environmental consequences of a project.

Environmental studies are often lengthy and expensive, and not all projects rise to the level of needing that much scrutiny.

For Mountain Peak winery, Napa County required a number of studies, including ones on groundwater, traffic and stormwater treatment. It then issued a 26-page declaration saying that possible environmental impacts are "less than significant" and that a full-blown environmental impact report was not needed.

Judge Cynthia Smith disagreed. In May of this year, she wrote "a fair argument" can be made that the project might harm surface water and biological resources. That potential triggers the need for an environmental report, she ruled.

"The fair argument standard has been called a 'low threshold test' for the requirement of an agency to prepare an EIR," Smith wrote in her opinion.

She noted that the project included the digging of wine caves, with spoils to be deposited on the property. Rains could potentially wash sediments into streams and Rector Creek, endangering the breeding habitat of aquatic life, she wrote.

Diane Shepp has opposed the Mountain Peak winery project for almost a decade. On Tuesday, she thanked supervisors for rescinding the use permit.

"I feel for us and for the safety and quality of life, not only of the people of Soda Canyon Road here in Napa County but for all of Napa County, this really is a step forward," she said. "It is not a step back."

County resident George Caloyannidis criticized the Board of Supervisors for not listening to project critics from the start.

"You antagonized us for five years at the cost of tens of thousands of dollars," he told supervisors. "... Instead of you administering justice, the court did. This is no way to govern."

Supervisor Belia Ramos in 2017 voted for the Mountain Peak winery project. But she voted against it in 2021, when the court had supervisors reconsider the project in light of information from the October 2017 Atlas Fire that burned Soda Canyon.

"That was in large part because rarely do we have the ability to have hindsight come together with the opportunity to redo something," Ramos said. "This is yet another opportunity."

Unlike in 2017 and 2021, this time the Board of Supervisors, under the court order, ruled against Mountain Peak winery.

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