Napa County takes first step to rein in wineries that break the law

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After years of wrangling, Napa County took a first step to better police its more than 500 wineries with an updated code enforcement program approved by its board of supervisors on Tuesday.

The board by a 4-0 vote approved a resolution that would revamp the county’s winery enforcement program that has been criticized as ineffective and having no teeth for violators. For example, county officials found in 2014 that almost half of the wineries audited did not comply with code requirements, such as exceeding their production or visitor limits.

The vote comes with increasing backlash to the wine sector that wields considerable political influence through the Napa Valley Vintners trade group and as the dominant economic driver in the county of more than 140,000 residents.

In recent years, industry opposition has been bubbling up, especially over greater traffic on Highway 29 and the Silverado Trail. In June, local voters narrowly rejected an amendment that would have limited vineyard development on hills and mountains to provide greater protection to the environment.

Sonoma County officials are paying close attention to the actions in Napa and the board of supervisors here intends to tackle winery tourism issues in 2019.

The main provision of the Napa County resolution would require all wineries in unincorporated areas to file annually their overall production and grape souring data to the county to see if the numbers are the same as the ones they report to federal and state authorities. Also, wineries with outstanding code violations each year would have until the end of March to resolve their problems or apply for a new permit. In addition, temporary winery event permits would need to be submitted 90 days in advance instead of the current 60-day rule.

There are now 38 open investigations for winery code violations in Napa County, said David Morrison, director of the county’s planning, building and environmental services department.

During the debate, Minh Tran, Napa County’s CEO, said his team was looking to ensure vintners that violate the law in the future will pay a steeper price.

“We are looking at making the penalty harsher and more severe,” Tran said.

A community task force was formed in 2015 to come up with recommendations that could be implemented in an attempt to balance the growth of the wine industry with concerns of residents. The code enforcement piece is the first part to go in front of the Napa supervisors to be followed with other efforts on traffic congestion and environmental impact — issues that may prove harder to resolve.

“This is simply step one,” County Supervisor Belia Ramos said. “There will be other policies.”

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