Great News! When Citizens Stay Onboard!

Great news! In a time that feels like misinformation, ignorance, and greed rule, something outstanding has happened! On Tuesday, November 8, 2022, citizens of Napa County will witness the fruits of many years of well-informed protests, advocacy, and legal action. The Board of Supervisors (BOS) will vote to rescind the use permit for Mountain Peak Winery!

How this came about is a story of perseverance by a group of citizens. Part of that story is chronicled in my just-released book Fruits of Eden: Field Notes Napa Valley 1991-2021. The Mountain Peak Winery site is near the dead-end of six and a half mile, windy, substandard Soda Canyon Road. The project was one of the largest winery event centers to receive a use permit in recent years. During use permit hearings, residents of Soda Canyon Road and larger Napa County sat for hours in the administrative chamber and overflow rooms, often packed to capacity, as person after person lined up to give their three-minute comment. We cheered each other on as individuals talked about the dangers of increased traffic on narrow Soda Canyon Road, local water shortage, water quality in the reservoir that supplies the Veteran’s Home and Yountville, and the impact of such increased intensity of use on the pristine ecology of the area. After the 2017 Atlas Peak Fire, we gasped as residents described harrowing escapes after fallen trees blocked the road and heroic evacuations by helicopter near the location of Mountain Peak. Some of these residents formed Protect Rural Napa to address development issues more broadly.

Nevertheless, the Planning Commission granted the use permit in January 2017, and BOS denied the appeal by Protect Rural Napa in August 2017. On September 22, 2017, members of Protect Rural Napa identified as “The Soda Canyon Group” filed suit to compel an Environmental Impact Report (EIR), citing a lack of consideration of fire danger, piling vast amounts of cave spoils within feet of two blue line creeks, a lack of biological resource analysis, insufficient and inaccurate analysis of groundwater extraction, and a disputed analysis of traffic and noise impacts.

The case was finally decided on March 23, 2022, after a series of back-and-forth actions between the Napa County Superior Court and the BOS. The Napa County Superior Court requires that an EIR be done before the project can be permitted. (Read Bill Hocker’s archive of the events here. The sequence of actions is worth the read.) The land is now for sale, and on November 8, 2022, the BOS will vote to rescind the permit, as ordered by the court. The EIR requirement was triggered on one point: lack of adequate biological resource analysis.

Given that 82% of the structures on Soda Canyon Road burned in 2017, and there were  evacuation problems resulting in two deaths, it seems outrageous that fire danger is not also the reason for rescinding the use permit. But then, that is an ongoing story, one tied into Napa County’s overuse of “same practical effect” in the interpretation of the Board of Forestry’s Fire Safe Regulations.

For now, this project will not further degrade the environment. Soda Canyon Road leads to land being pillaged by those with dreams of wineries and vineyards, who exploit thin topsoil and astounding beauty for growing and marketing “great cabs.” Yes, this is also happening all over Napa County, especially in our most beautiful, remote, and vulnerable watersheds. But now, a precedent is set. An EIR will be required for any further wine production and tourism-oriented development on this land. This is hardly the first time that the county has been criticized for not requiring EIRs. Citizens, primarily Protect Rural Napa, worked hard for years, fought the county with their own resources, and risked a loss in court. If they had not done all that, Mountain Peak Winery would be marketing its permitted 100,000 gallons of wine a year to its 22,000 visitors, making 44,000 additional trips a year on a dead-end, winding road six miles up into the beautiful, formerly quiet eastern hills of Napa County.

Even when there are huge losses, like the 14,000 trees of Walt Ranch, and it feels that our governing bodies are not hearing us –when it seems the power of money eclipses the health of our watersheds and residents’ quality of life in our rural lands and cities, there are also wins. Mountain Peak Winery is a story to celebrate and remember. On days like November 8, we know we are making headway.

Filed under: Fruits of Eden: Field Notes Napa ValleyGeneralMountain Peak WineryProtect Rural NapaSoda Canyon Road

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