Sea Change in Napa County?

It has been three weeks now since that day we sat in the Napa County Board of Supervisors (BOS) chamber for the appeal hearing by the Center for Biological Diversity (CBD) of the Le Colline Vineyard project—the day that the Board of Supervisors crossed a line into a new world for Napa County. The CBD challenged the Planning Department’s permitting of a vineyard in the Ag Watershed Open Space lands. The proposed vineyard was in the headwaters of Conn Creek, the watershed of Lake Hennessey, the primary water source for the City of Napa. The project threatened a contingent beloved Napa County Land Trust site, Linda Falls, cutting mature trees in a bouldered area, threatening silting-in of the creek. The proposal fragmented a significant wildlife corridor and would increase traffic on a quiet, mountainous residential road past a daycare center and elementary school. Over three hundred comment letters begged the BOS to uphold the appeal.

We have had two significant victories for the environment in the last year: Walt Ranch and Mountain Peak Winery. However, both wins for the environment were not the result of our local government considering the changing demands of climate change but rather were business-as-usual decisions by the applicants. The projects, steeped in years of appeals and court battles and resulting required modifications for approval, were probably no longer profitable and thereby abandoned. Still, these lands are saved, the Walt Ranch now in the Napa County Land Trust and the Mountain Peak Winery land up for sale. The bad news? Citizens had to fight our local government at great expense in time and energy to get the projects stopped— and the applicants also lost at significant cost to themselves. This obviously is not the way to govern.

On the day of the Le Colline hearing, the room filled with neighbors to the proposed project and the dozen or so people I have come to know and love over the last decade in this advocacy for the environment. Only two or three of the many commenters advocated for the BOS to deny the appeal. We were instructed to keep our comments to two minutes. Most of us sat in the chamber, the rest in the overflow in the lobby. Someone held out tee shirts “Protect Angwin, Keep Napa Water Safe”. We eyed the Utah applicant and his wife, sitting anxiously in the front, many of us seeing them for the first time. The Santa Rosa Press Democrat reporter Edward Booth sat on the side of the room with his photographer. Barry Ebberling from the Napa Valley Register was notably absent, under the weather. He has followed these kinds of proceedings for ten years.

We listened to the Planning Director’s reasoning about why Le Colline Vineyard was permitted. Chair Belia Ramos silenced our gasps and scoffs of disbelief at some of his statements and claims. The CBD attorneys, young and female, made their case. Public comments were finished by noon; only a fraction of us returned for the afternoon proceedings and the vote.

I will tell you I am proud of our two new supervisors, just seated this year. Supervisor Anne Cottrell enumerated ten Conservation Regulations (con regs) in the General Plan, which offer protections from such a project. Supervisor Joelle Gallagher named another four. Neither advocated for negative mitigations for these con regs, as is historically done. Both voted to uphold the appeal, citing climate change and the need to protect our watersheds. Then Alfredo Pedrosa and Ryan Gregory voted, denying the appeal, saying the parcels were zoned in the Ag Watershed, which was considered the highest and best use. If we want to change that, they both held, we need to do it, not by denying an applicant who had done everything right, but by changing the General Plan.

So the vote was two to two when Chair Belia Ramos made her vote. As she explained her reasoning, many of us felt tears come to our eyes. She was going to uphold the appeal! For the first time, the importance of the watershed was being considered in a vote. This is a sea change.

There was the aftermath. The Farm Bureau had its letter ready to decry the vote, saying it was dangerous and threatened Ag. They contacted both papers, sounding their alarm. But for many, their actions only underscored the real danger, which is what the Farm Bureau advocates: business as usual. Several citizens’ Letters to the Editor stated the stakes so well, including Iris Barrie, Paul Moser, and Napa Sierra Club’s Nick Cheranich. The Ag Preserve was formed in 1968 during a time very different from now, when there were far fewer wineries. The Ag Watershed lands were later zoned and protected from wanton development in the 70s. Little were we aware then of the many challenges we are facing now.

If we are going to have a premium winegrowing county in the future, if we are going to have enough water for everyone, the resilience of our environment is our only hope. The apparent old attitude of our county planning department of “make it work” will not serve us as we face the daunting changes already upon us. A recent article in the New York Times chronicles how we have allowed industries, especially agriculture, to gobble up groundwater. The author sounds the alarm for the future: We must change how we farm and use water, or we will run out. Large sections of our country are already at that point.

So, the sea change that this vote heralds is an important one. We no longer can modify our con regs in the General Plan to fit a project’s needs. The highest and best use of our Ag Watershed Open Space lands is watershed. Ag has to be secondary in our watersheds. We need our County Government to protect the environment and our water supply for all of us, not just the few who have the resources to exploit a piece of earth for a fine wine.