Napa County watershed divide widens

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On April 23, the Center for Biological Diversity posted online (PDF) the 64-page report "Napa County Conservation Policy: Existing conditions and Proposed Policy Impacts" by Amber Manfree, Ph.D.

Napa County is known for the stories behind its world-class wines, and recent public-policy actions on tree removal and permitted rural winery activities are mobilizing groups to have a hand in writing the future story for local business.

On April 9 after three years and two unsuccessful ballot measures — Measure C failed by a razor-thin margin in June — the Napa County Board of Supervisors unanimously approved greater protections for native woodlands from development and buffer zones for watersheds. But the contentious path to the Water Quality and Tree Protection ordinance vote may not be the last word from supporters and opponents of tougher rules, from inside and outside the wine business.

An attorney from the Center for Biological Diversity, an Arizona-based advocacy group, criticized the new rules, “watered down” by the time of the March 26 marathon hearing and first vote.

“The ordinance does nowhere near enough to adequately protect the Napa landscapes from the threats of development,” legal fellow Ross Middlemiss told the supervisors April 9.

Middlemiss called the revisions, particularly, the removal of protection for shrubland from the final version, as “indicative of the board’s misguided approach throughout this process.”

“In the interest of so-called compromise, the board has taken every opportunity to ignore science-based recommendations, instead favoring the industry’s demands for unchecked growth,” he told the board.

David Morrison, county planning director, after public comments and before the vote disputed the assertion development of housing, wineries and vineyards has been “unbridled.” His department has been under fire in the past few years from opponents of wine- and hospitality-related development in rural areas of the county for contributing to traffic woes and from growers and vintners seeking permits for planting or expanding production or metrics such as visitors per day or events per year.

But some prominent wine industry figures have been calling for tighter controls. A group called Growers/Vintners for Responsible Agriculture, whose members include Andy Beckstoffer and Judgment of Paris icon Warren Winiarski, endorsed Measure C. While the mere 641-vote margin of defeat for the initiative is said to have spawned Board of Supervisors move toward the recent ordinance, a number in the industry think the possibility of another initiative also was a factor.

The group funded a study of Napa County’s changing woodlands over time by Amber Manfree, a Davis geography consultant who last year completed her postdoctoral research at the University of California, Davis, Center for Watershed Sciences.

The report, submitted only to the Board of Supervisors but not the public, faults the ordinance for not going far enough to protect trees. Manfree told the supervisors that the increase in required percentage of native trees on a rural parcel from 60% previously to 70% now would increase tree protection by only 2% overall, and the increase in the ratio of trees preserved or replanted for those removed to 3 to 1 from 2 to 1 would only increase protection by 4%.

The cap on removal of native oaks at nearly 800 acres as of September 2017, as called for in Measure C, but the new ordinance would open 28,000 acres of trees in the county to removal, she said.

Michelle Benvenuto, executive director of Winegrowers of Napa County, criticized the report as not peer-reviewed nor released to the public.

“There is science and data that is available that talks about the health of our environment and the watershed, and we have referred the county to the RCD many times,” she said, referring to the Napa County Resource Conservation District, a state-established autonomous agency that guides conservation projects.

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On April 23, the Center for Biological Diversity posted online (PDF) the 64-page report "Napa County Conservation Policy: Existing conditions and Proposed Policy Impacts" by Amber Manfree, Ph.D.

She noted that Napa County forested land has decreased 1.2% since 2005 and pointed to work that has been done in the county to improve the watershed.

“This isn’t deforestation going on,” Benvenuto told the board. “This isn’t our hillsides being destroyed. This is our existing regulations working.”

Other trade groups that have questioned or opposed the ordinance are Napa Valley Vintners, Napa Valley Grapegrowers, and Napa County Farm Bureau. For example, Napa Valley Grapegrowers before the first vote wrote in public submissions to the Board of Supervisors about "areas of question and concern," such as increasing restrictions on plantable farmland and protecting existing processes for replanting vineyards, at a time when the group projects farming costs to rise 30% in the next five years. The nonprofit recommended changes to the ordinance and explained the efficacy of what had been current policy before the vote.

And in the weeks leading up to the ordinance vote, the farm bureau announced it formed a political action committee, and a key focus for its efforts will be the March 2020 Board of Supervisors election, according to CEO Ryan Klobas. That’s when supervisors Ryan Gregory, Alfredo Pedroza and Belia Ramos will be up re-election, and the PAC plans to research how they have voted on agricultural issues as well as educate candidates on the ballot and get the message out via phone banks and advertising.

“There are people out there who are highly upset and want to make sure their feelings are heard,” Klobas said. “Some talk about how the ordinance could have been different, and some are in tears because they think their small family farm can’t do business anymore.”

Key dates various sides of the watershed issue are looking toward are Sept. 20, the deadline for qualifying a new initiative for the ballot, and Dec. 6, when candidates for the open supervisorial seats must file.

Contact Jeff Quackenbush at or 707-521-4256.

Correction, April 23: Napa Valley Grapegrowers emphasized that it expressed "areas of question and concern" in public submissions to the Board of Supervisors, recommending changes to the ordinance and explaining the efficacy of what had been current policy before the vote. The original story said all the mentioned groups opposed the ordinance.

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