Napa County: Supervisors to take up winery growth debate

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December 05, 2015 3:48 pm  • 

Napa County Supervisors are wading again into the community discussion about whether wine country is drowning in its own success or has a success story worth toasting.

On Tuesday, they will explore whether the county needs a major transformation in winery growth policy, changes on the margins or no changes. They will tackle issues that have simmered for a couple of years.

And there’s a new backdrop.

Planners had previously reported that winery growth is on target with the county’s master growth plan. They now say growth is outstripping the forecast. The general plan’s projected growth rate called for about 60 new wineries to be approved over the past decade, 86 have been approved and 29 applications are pending.

At this rate, the 150 new wineries that the general plan foresaw being added between 2005 and 2030 will be approved by mid-2023, a county report said. Napa County has about 450 wineries.

“With the rapid growth of the wine industry, there has been increasing concern raised regarding the rate, intensity and location of development within the unincorporated areas,” the report said.

Meanwhile, some people say some wineries are becoming glitzy event centers inappropriate for an agricultural area. Others say wineries are doing what they must to survive in today’s market and are causing few problems.

Board of Supervisors Chairwoman Diane Dillon on Friday was uncertain how much supervisors will be able to accomplish in one day as they look at revising the 1990 Winery Definition Ordinance and code enforcement policies.

“I think a lot depends on how much public comment there is, which is the public’s right … I have no idea if we’re going to have two hours of testimony or six,” she said.

Supervisors have a long list of recommendations to consider. The ideas originated with the board-appointed Agricultural Protection Advisory Committee (APAC), which had representatives from the wine and farming industries, the cities, environmentalists, businesses and neighborhood groups.

In addition, the Planning Commission made a few modifications to the recommendations. Altogether, the package going to the Board of Supervisors is eight months in the making.

One recommendation calls for having all wineries attest annually they are following their use permits, as well as submit supporting data. Violators would have to immediately come into compliance and wait at least a year before applying for use permit changes.

Another would limit how much of a rural property could be paved over for a winery, home and other structures. Another would create a fast-track for proposed small wineries that meet certain criteria. Another would in most instances require new wineries to deal with their wastewater onsite.

Napa Valley Vintners and Napa Valley Grapegrowers support the APAC recommendations. The two groups each had a voting member on the committee.

But there’s a complication. APAC stipulated that revised winery growth regulations should apply only to new wineries, not to permit changes for expansions and major modifications at existing wineries.

County staff has since said that the county might be legally bound to apply the new rules to expansions and major modifications at existing wineries. The existing wineries themselves would remain legal and conforming uses.

“Respecting the historical rights of existing wineries is a die-on-the-hill item for Napa Valley Vintners,” group spokesman Rex Stults said on Friday.

Napa Valley Grapegrowers wants the county to look again at the legal advice. Executive Director Jennifer Putnam said the group wants to honor the time and effort that went into the original APAC recommendations.

In contrast, the Napa County Farm Bureau supports the recommendations as altered by the Planning Commission. That includes applying new winery growth rules to major modifications at existing wineries.

Farm Bureau Executive Director Sandy Elles praised the efforts by both APAC and the Planning Commission.

“Over eight or nine months of discussion, there was a very clear sense from everyone in the room that we have a treasure here to protect,” she said on Friday.

She sees a consensus to make sure the wine industry thrives while protecting resources. Given that, she said the county will find a way to move forward with the recommendations.

A coalition of wineries and wine-related businesses has arisen that opposes adding more winery regulations now. Tom Davies, president of V. Sattui Winery, said the group expects to submit a petition with almost 400 signatures to the county.

“We’re asking supervisors to pause,” Davies said on Friday.

Traffic, affordable housing and water conservation have emerged as the core issues facing the county, Davies said. Before the county passes new regulations on a highly regulated industry, it should spend its money and human resources trying to solve these challenges, he said.

Dan Mufson is president of Vision 2050 and he sat on the APAC. Vision 2050 is a local coalition of 14 environmental and community groups.

Mufson said a big issue for Vision 2050 is having the county enforce its rules. This ties into the APAC recommendation to have wineries submit annual reports attesting they are in compliance with their use permits and include supporting data.

“I’m still hoping we might get the board to put some more teeth into the proposal,” Mufson said.

As it stands, the county would do more in-depth investigations of wineries only if the self-generated winery reports raised red flags. Mufson would like the county to randomly investigate a certain percentage of wineries, similar to what the Internal Revenue Service does with tax returns.

“If we could get everybody in the wine industry to comply with their permits, then we’d begin to have some semblance of rationality and morality,” Mufson said.

At their Oct. 13 meeting, supervisors touched briefly on possible future directions the county could take with regards to winery rules. For example, Supervisor Keith Caldwell addressed the county’s practice of granting after-the-fact approvals for illegal uses.

“There is still a perception out there, and has been for many years, that it’s easier to beg for forgiveness in this county than it is to go forward with permission,” Caldwell said. “I think we need to really look at how we’re going to change that mindset.”

Supervisors also briefly discussed the visitation limits that the county imposes on individual wineries, often after much deliberation to come up with a number such as 5,000 visitors annually. The county faces a problem in knowing how many visitors each winery actually has.

Caldwell mentioned the idea of counting vehicles rather than visitors. A device that costs less than $300 can be glued to the driveway and provided easily downloaded data, he said.

“I am much interested in a further look at that,” Supervisor Mark Luce responded.

Supervisors may or may not reintroduce such ideas on Tuesday. They could accept the APAC recommendations, modify them or go in a different direction. They meet at 9 a.m. at the County Administration building  at 1195 Third St. in Napa, with the winery growth discussion scheduled to begin at 9:30 a.m.

Copyright 2015 Napa Valley Register. All rights reserved.

Here are some of the recommendations:

Winery growth recommendations

Here is a sampling of Planning Commission and Agricultural Protection Advisory Committee recommendations:

— No more than 20 percent of agricultural parcels up to 40 acres can be developed for wineries, residences and other uses. No more than eight acres can be developed for parcels greater than 40 acres.

— All rural wineries must submit annual reports and data showing they are complying with their use permits. Any winery out of compliance must immediately come into compliance.

— Variances are not a principal tool to allow proposed wineries to comply with land use regulations.

— Have a fast track for proposed, small wineries that meet certain criteria.

— New wineries cannot store and haul out waste water and related liquid products except on a temporary basis.

— Napa County should hold a summit of city and county officials to discuss efforts to address regional land use and transportation