For almost three years, Napa Vision 2050 has been advocating respect for Napa County’s semi-rural and agricultural heritage, adding the contemporary voice of neighborhood groups to the preservationist guidelines Napans established decades ago.
The guidelines have since been observed—and also ignored. The county has been lax in monitoring guideline compliance. Moreover, with violations discovered, it’s condoned them. For example, with breathtaking permissiveness the Board of Supervisors forgave Calistoga’s Reverie Winery for carelessly ignoring its visitation and production permits.
And last month the Board blessed the road-building plans of Raymond Vineyards to prefer, ironically, hospitality events to vineyards. For its ag-to-tourist project, Raymond had applied to the county out of respect for its permit process. The Board seemed untroubled that in Raymond’s previous respect for county guidelines it forgot its legal limit of 26 employees (they have 90).
By the Board’s disregard for its own land-use principles, we are losing Napa’s semi-rural, small-town identity as an agricultural valley. Where there were just a few score wineries two decades ago, now there are over 500. Where a limited number of visitors sampled wine at tasting rooms for free, now tourists number over 3 million every year. Where residents and visitors enjoyed a tranquil, unhurried drive to and from the Valley, traffic congestion now plagues the highways. Where the county’s commitment to agriculture was to the “highest and best use” of the land, it’s goal now appears to be bringing money into the Valley via tourism.
But there’s a glimmer of hope. The degradation of that highest-and-best-use ideal is so obvious that the chorus of concern is growing beyond the strained voices of environmentalists to include growers and viticulturalists. For example, in Carneros David Graves of Saintsbury Winery wisely wondered, “How do we safeguard a place without loving it to death?”
Vintner Michael Honig expressed shock about Bremer Winery’s “disregard for the rules” in Angwin.
Grape grower Andy Beckstoffer, referring to Raymond Vineyards’ road project in St. Helena, commented to the supervisors, “they want to take land out of ag solely for the purpose of hospitality. . We ask you to reject this application and support an agricultural economy.” He added in a Napa Valley Register letter “Napa County has two choices. One is to have an agricultural economy supported by tourism and the other is to have a tourism economy supported by agriculture.” Raymond, he reminded the supervisors pointedly, has “no sworn commitment to protect the agricultural land and rural character of our county. But you do.”
Yet another vintner, Robert Trinchero, noted Napa’s popularity and called the problem “encroachment”: “Our customers come from all over . . . That is going to kill the goose that laid the golden egg. You can’t move all these people here. We need vineyards.” He acknowledged the growing sense that “enough is enough. There are too many wineries.” Furthermore “some wineries build their wineries and vineyards irrespective of the feelings of their neighbors. This causes a lot of problems, so we have to change that.”
Trinchero also remarked that “the mentality of some winemakers is that they would rather apologize . . . that they didn’t know they can’t have tourism tasting. We have to draw the line somewhere. The line should be the law. It should be reasonable, in that no neighbors are complaining.”
The good news continues. The Planning Commission just rejected the Palmaz proposal for helicopter use in Napa. That decision is stunning because this county has heretofore been so agreeable to applications for projects no matter how inappropriate or how inconsiderate of neighbors.
Clearly, the momentum in Napa County is shifting. Napa Vision 2050’s two recent town halls featured robust attendance and frustrated citizens eager to arrest the degradation of the county.
It’s increasingly apparent that not only we residents, but also the responsible wine industry, now recognize how destructive indulgence toward tourism (more visitors, more traffic) has been to the county’s heritage. It’s time to make changes.