Opponents of Napa’s Walt Ranch vineyard project appeal climate-mitigation plan approval

The Walt Ranch vineyard project, stalled for five years in legal actions, is headed back to the Napa County Board of Supervisors, after a key opponent objected to the revised plan to mitigate the estimated climate impact from the removal of thousands of trees.

The Center for Biological Diversity on Monday filed an appeal of a Oct. 1 county administrative approval of the project’s revised greenhouse gas mitigation plan, which earlier this year had been kicked back by Napa County and state courts to fix. The group and Napa Sierra Club sued the county after the supervisors’ December 2016 certification of the project environmental impact report.

Napa County Superior Court and the 1st District Court of Appeals backed that certification, but the latter just over two years ago found found fault with the project’s plan for mitigating the removal of 14,281 trees.

“Napa residents facing the consequences of a severe drought and recent wildfires don’t have to be reminded that they’re living in the midst of a climate crisis,” said Ross Middlemiss, an attorney at the center, a Tucson, Arizona-based organization that claims 1.7 million members. “Chopping down so many carbon-sequestering trees at Walt Ranch without a responsible plan in place would be foolish, and it’ll contribute to a worsening emergency that spells disaster for the entire valley.”

The center faults the county’s “flawed approach” in the revised mitigation plan “to preserve fewer existing woodlands in exchange for a planting program that is vague and unsupported by science.”

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.

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.

The appeal notes that the plan needs to be specific “where seedlings will be planted, lacks sufficient information about the current conditions of those areas, and doesn’t detail how the county plans to ensure the mitigation plantings will be successful.”

The Walt Ranch applicant, Hall Brambletree Associates LP, an affiliate of Hall Wines, said in a comment letter about the revision that major wildfires in 2017 and 2020 burned 97% of the trees on the property. But an attorney from the center objected to that assessment, pointing to research from the 2017 Tubbs Fire that found many of the burned trees ended up surviving.

The center’s appeal calls for the preserved areas of the property to be existing habitat, to plant trees only in historic oak woodlands and monitor new trees to ensure a survival rate of at least 80% over seven years.

“There are reasonable steps Napa supervisors can take to make sure this project is built in a way that causes the least harm,” Middlemiss said in the news release about the appeal. “We don’t want to be standing here five years from now looking at a handful of struggling trees near a once thriving forest.”

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