[The editorial board of the St. Helena Star has endorsed the framework if not entirely the content of Napa Vision 2050. The editorial is here. And here:]
If you ask a representative of Napa Vision 2050 about what's ailing Napa County, you won't get one concise answer.
And that's OK, because there really isn't one.
After meeting recently with three members of the fledgling advocacy group Dan Mufson, president; Mike Hackett of Save Rural Angwin; and Geoff Ellsworth of Citizens' Voice St. Helena we were impressed by their appreciation for the complexity of the challenges posed by growth.
They understand that no silver-bullet solution can solve a set of problems this amorphous and multifaceted. The goals they proposed to us included stronger enforcement of winery use permits, protecting watersheds, keeping wineries away from urban residential areas and requiring businesses to pay employees a living wage.
For some grassroots groups, a lack of focus can be disastrous. But in the case of Napa Vision 2050, we agreed with Mike Hackett that their diversity of backgrounds, interests and goals is actually a strength.
The first step for an organization like this is to get people engaged. They can worry about refining their message later.
At the most basic level, Napa Vision 2050 is trying to protect what we all enjoy: a high quality of life made possible by unique natural resources that fuel a world-class wine industry.
But being such an attractive place has its consequences. People want to visit here, so we need roads and hotels to accommodate those tourists. The businesses that serve those tourists need low- and middle-income workers, who are finding it harder than ever to afford the cost of housing, which has been driven up by high demand among outsiders who want their own piece of the Napa Valley.
Winery development is at the heart of Napa Vision 2050's concerns. The disruption of traditional distribution models and a rise in small boutique wineries have driven a trend toward direct sales and face-to-face marketing, which puts even more pressure on our roads and infrastructure.
But that's where things get complicated. Traffic studies have found that between 15 and 17 percent of traffic on weekdays was attributable to wineries. That includes visitors, employees and other business-related vehicles. If that 20 percent were eliminated, the roads would no longer be congested but our valley's economic model depends on that 20 percent.
Representatives of Napa Vision 2050 can dispute those numbers, but the fact is that not even a moratorium on new wineries would make the traffic go away. The traffic problem is primarily us, the residents, commuting to and from work and going about our daily lives. And we're not going anywhere.
Or are we? A recent study by UC Berkeley examined the trends toward gentrification and displacement around the Bay Area, and found that Napa County's urban areas are most at risk for displacement due to rising housing costs. That problem isn't limited to the rural areas like Atlas Peak and Angwin that Napa Vision 2050 is primarily concerned with: It's affecting downtown St. Helena, Calistoga and Napa, and it has nothing directly to do with winery development.
We've seen this dynamic play out in the last few years. Low-income workers have resorted to deplorably substandard living conditions, and even middle-class professionals making the county's median income of about $70,000 can't afford the median home price of around $500,000 and rising and almost $1 million in St. Helena.
If you take some of the ideas espoused by Napa Vision 2050 to their logical extreme, they might even contribute to these problems. A strict mentality I've got mine, so let's shut the door to everybody else would drive property values up even further and promote the same exclusivity that's lent the Napa Valley so much allure.
But for the most part, Mufson, Hackett and Ellsworth acknowledge these complexities. We didn't hear them propose a moratorium on winery development or expansion, and they didn't pretend that any of their solutions would solve all of the problems we're facing.
That's why they're not laser-focused on a single goal. They're fighting individual projects like Walt Ranch outside Napa and the expansion of Reverie winery outside Calistoga, but they're also lobbying the Board of Supervisors to place tighter controls on new winery development and crack down on the scofflaws who violate their permits.
They're also encouraging a few people to apply for a soon-to-be vacant seat on the county Planning Commission, and they might end up running their own supervisorial candidates.
By spreading their energies in so many different directions, they're broadening their base which makes sense on an organizational level and respecting the complexity of the problems they're fighting.
While we disagree with Napa Vision 2050 on some of the details, we applaud their emphasis on positive community involvement and their refusal to oversimplify Napa County's many challenges.