New Challenges to the Integrity of the Agricultural Preserve and Quality of Napa’s Rural Life

Sounds like the same here in Sonoma County….

The proliferation of non-conforming and accessory uses, and the participation of the Board of Supervisors, the Planning Commission, and the Conservation and Planning Department in the current further redefinition of a winery appears to accede to the very commercial and urbanizing pressures the County General Plan has committed to avoid and keep separate from agriculturally zoned land.

The danger is that each redefinition allows a new level of commercial, cultural, or promotional activity occurring on Agricultural Preserve or Agricultural Watershed land which in turn establishes precedent and legal foundation for expanding future agricultural uses.” 

Napa Vision 2050: New Challenges to the Integrity of the Agricultural Preserve and Quality of Napa’s Rural Life

Recently, a group of small growers, with support from a number of large operations, spoke to the county and requested the ability to have marketing and sales, tastings, and events onsite at their ranches without requiring the winery permitting process. While we have sympathy for the small grower, we have concerns about such a move and its potential impact on both the environment and the integrity of the County’s agricultural lands.  

Decisions such as these have the potential to further degrade the rural, agricultural and quiet quality of life that we treasure in Napa County. On-site wine marketing events, tastings and sales will increase traffic, make our roadways less safe, increase fire risk, and threaten the safety of wildlife. Events such as large dinners and weddings can subject neighbors to evening noise, tour buses, loud music and loss of privacy. These commercial ventures urbanize our protected agricultural lands.

In order to address this issue, we embarked on a review of the history of the Ag Preserve, the definition of agriculture, and land use policies in Napa County. We came across the powerful Grand Jury report of 1987-88 covering land use and winery accessory issues. This report is as relevant today as it was then. The Grand Jury was prescient in its warnings. 

In that report (click here for the document), the Grand Jury’s poetically passionate and at times scathing assessment, quoted the General Plan and its purpose to protect Napa County’s “unique and fragile agricultural soils and watershed resource”. The Grand Jury said: “The plan is ‘in a sense a constitution of the county’s future’… ‘a program for the protection and development of the unincorporated area of Napa County’…’ a guide which enables citizens to anticipate the County’s reaction to individual development programs or projects.’ …In short, the intent of the Plan is to: PRESERVE AGRICULTURE, and CONCENTRATE URBAN USES IN EXISTING URBAN AREAS.”

Wineries were addressed in this report, including the definition of a winery. (See box below)  The Grand Jury cautioned, rather prophetically, that:

The proliferation of non-conforming and accessory uses, and the participation of the Board of Supervisors, the Planning Commission, and the Conservation and Planning Department in the current further redefinition of a winery appears to accede to the very commercial and urbanizing pressures the County General Plan has committed to avoid and keep separate from agriculturally zoned land. The danger is that each redefinition allows a new level of commercial, cultural, or promotional activity occurring on Agricultural Preserve or Agricultural Watershed land which in turn establishes precedent and legal foundation for expanding future agricultural uses.” 

The Grand Jury warned that the county should heed this advice:“In order to maintain an Agricultural Preserve, the continuing process of redefining a winery based upon non-conforming accessory uses should cease.”
For the last 30 years, every attempt at ‘protection’ too often ends up, as the 1987-88 Grand Jury predicted, as a blank check for wineries to expand their commercialism on agricultural lands.
SO WHAT HAPPENED? AND WHERE DO WE GO FROM HERE?

Over the next weeks Eyes On Napa will present Everything You Wanted to Know About Agricultural Protection But Were Afraid to Ask, a series of articles to shed light on these documents and the important role they should be playing in guiding land use decisions in Napa. We will also take a close look at the current request to streamline the permit processes and allowable marketing practices for small wineries that are coming before the Board of Supervisors soon. 

We hope that this series will help you to decide, if you have not already, whether the land use decisions being made in Napa County are being guided by these noble goals or whether land use decisions are being driven by other factors that do not always harmonize with these objectives. Stay tuned for more next week.

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