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Does Napa Need to Choose Between Grapevines and Oak Trees?

A proposal to protect oak trees and streams has many in the wine industry worried
Photo by: Gary Crabbe/Alamy
Napa is home to gorgeous vineyards and old oak forests.

Aaron Romano
Posted: March 6, 2018

Napa Valley is known for both its gorgeous acres of vineyards and its rugged, oak-covered hillsides. But do residents need to choose between vines and trees?

Napa residents will vote on Measure C, also known as the "Napa County Watershed and Oak Woodland Protection Initiative of 2018" in June. Its goal, according to its proponents, is to amend the county's zoning rules to further protect Napa's streams, watersheds, wetlands and oak forests. Seems like a no-brainer on paper: Defend the splendor of Napa's hillsides.

Opponents, including many of the local wine-industry trade groups, fear the initiative will needlessly restrict hillside vineyard development. It's a pivotal issue for a county that thrives on both maintaining its natural beauty and a $50 billion wine industry. The measure is sparking angry disagreement, especially given the altered environment following the devastating fires in October; and the debate will only get uglier by election day.

Protecting Napa's Future?

Napa County has policies in place to control development in watershed areas, but this initiative would amend existing planning and zoning codes. The measure would tighten restrictions on the removal of oak trees—only 795 acres of oak woodlands could be removed around hills and mountains of the county. Once that limit is reached, landowners would need a special permit to cut down trees, and they would need to replace three times as many trees as they removed, or preserve additional acreage elsewhere. Perhaps most significant, new vineyards would not qualify as a reason for the special permits to be granted, while other projects such as cell towers and electric vehicle charging stations would qualify.

The measure would also create new standards for buffers near streams, prohibiting tree removal from 25 to up to 150 feet from the water, depending on the stream classification.

Napa residents Mike Hackett and Jim Wilson are among the measure's authors. Hackett contends that the initiative has nothing to do with planting restrictions and is wholly about enhancing the protection of the oaks and the local water in a state that has faced drought conditions in recent years. Up to 70 percent of Napa's water supply comes from its watersheds. "It's unique to have self-contained water reservoirs," said Hackett. "And if we continue to develop, the groundwater resupply will be inadequate for the future."

Many backers of the proposal argue that the wine industry has expanded too much and that local officials have allowed overdevelopment. They point to the rapid growth in wine tourism and the traffic it has brought to valley roads.

Howell Mountain vintner Randy Dunn supports the measure. He believes too many people with deep pockets have moved into Napa in recent years and don't care about the environmental impact of development. "I've lived here almost 45 years, and these newcomers don't have an attachment to the land," said Dunn. "And who knows how long they'll be here; they could come in, extract resources, make money and leave."

Dunn cites the county's approval of a timber harvest across the street from his property. The project was approved without environmental easements included and has residents concerned. "We don't owe anyone a free ticket," said Dunn.

Or Killing It?

Most of the local wine-trade organizations oppose the measure, including the Napa County Farm Bureau, Winegrowers of Napa County, Napa Valley Grapegrowers and Napa Valley Vintners. Rex Stults, government relations director for Napa Valley Vintners (NVV), said the majority of the 542 vintners the organization represents oppose the initiative. "We do have some very passionate vintners that are in support and are disappointed that we're not," said Stults.

The NVV initially assisted Hackett on drafting the measure. "We reached out and tried to come up with a better solution," said Stults. Despite working with Hackett for the better part of the year, the NVV announced last October that they were withdrawing their support. Asked why, Stults said there was too much disagreement among vintners. "After collecting data, the board members allowed democracy to take its course," he said. “If it doesn't pass, that doesn't mean we can't or shouldn't evaluate the environmental regulations and work together in the future."

Opponents believe the initiative was written without proper collaboration by other industry groups and without public input. "We should all sit down and discuss if they believe there is a problem," said Garrett Buckland, president of the Napa Valley Grapegrowers (NVG).

One potential flaw at the forefront of opponents' minds is that the measure's oak removal limit of 795 acres is based on the acreage on Sept. 1, 2017. A month later, the Atlas, Tubbs and Nuns wildfires raged in the hills above the valley for nearly two weeks, drastically changing the landscape. "This is not the same environment that it was before the fire," said Buckland. In fact, the fires burned an estimated 30,639 acres in Napa County, many of which included oak woodlands.

Hackett claims that the oaks lost in the fires will not count against the 795 acres. He said that the measure's organizers agonized over whether to keep the measure on the ballot, but were advised by ecological groups that the measure was needed now more than ever.

A legal analysis of the measure conducted by a firm hired by county supervisors showed that the fires further complicated the 795-acre cap. The language of the measure doesn’t differentiate the different ways to interpret damage from fires created by Mother Nature, or burned as a result of a backfire set by firefighters.

Already Protected?

One of the most surprising facts about Napa is that less than 10 percent of its 504,450 acres are planted to vineyards. The Land Trust of Napa County, a non-profit, protects 70,000 acres, 14 percent of Napa County, from any development.

For decades, farming was considered an ideal way to keep land from being developed. The Agricultural Preserve of 1968 was crafted to protect the valley from overdevelopment. Today, more than 32,000 acres are contained within the Preserve, and no land has ever been removed.

Opponents of the new proposal ask why farming is now seen as a threat. Ted Hall, president and CEO of Long Meadow Ranch, owns 650 acres in the western hills above Rutherford and is one of the pioneers of organic farming in Napa County. He served as the chair of the Napa County Agriculture Protection Advisory Committee last year, a board dedicated to ensuring the continued success of Napa through agriculture. He believes that there are unintended consequences to focusing just on oaks and thinks the initiative is not being executed in the correct manner. "We're dealing with complex zoning rules and regulations that are not well-suited for the initiative process."

The proposal's backers project that 10,000 acres of new vineyards will be developed by 2030. Opponents believe this number is exaggerated. "There has been a proliferation of small wineries [in recent years], but not a proportionate increase in vineyards," said Hall, noting that annual vineyard growth is relatively modest.

But Hackett stands by his calculations, and maintains that the measure will not stop all vineyard planting. "There are 9,000 acres in the hills that the California Conservation Corps have deemed prime for vineyard planting, but only 800 acres of that are planted with oaks," said Hackett. "That means you can put in 8,000 acres without touching an oak."

The NVG is trying to inform voters that there are already regulations in place for the watersheds. "It feels like a solution in search of a problem," said Buckland. "The initiative makes a lot of assumptions about not protecting, when in fact it’s one of the most protected areas in the county."

Hackett believes those regulations don't always work. "There are too many loopholes," he said, citing incidents in the past where vintners have gone through with development such as digging caves without a permit, knowing that they will be fined, but accepting the fine for the sake of their project. "We're seeing that it's much easier to ask for forgiveness than permission."

Any project to convert land to vineyard currently must obtain an Erosion Control Plan permit, which allows county planners to review all relevant environmental issues, including oak removal. Over the years, some vintners have planted vineyards in the hills, while others have been slowed by resistance and red tape.

The most recent and notable project in the hills is the Walt Ranch development. In 2005, Craig and Kathryn Hall of Hall Wines purchased 2,300 acres in the eastern hills with the intent to plant vines. An initial environmental study showed that vineyard development in the area could cause potentially significant impacts. The Hall team reduced the size of their project, and a final environmental report showed there would be no significant impact, which lead the county to approve the project. But after a decade, not a single vine has been planted. Several lawsuits have been filed against the county for approving the project.

Many vintners contend that vineyards have proven sustainable, and that agriculture is the best use of the land, arguing that if there weren't grapevines, something far worse from an ecological point of view, such as property development, could be in their place. "There is an exhaustive process when it comes to planting in the watershed," said Buckland. "People don't understand that we already take every step necessary to protect the environment, and in fact, Napa grapegrowers are the most regulated in the state."

Voters will decide on Measure C on June 5.

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