SodaCanyonRoad | The end of the Trail? (updated)
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The end of the Trail? (updated)


Bill Hocker | Jan 10, 2017 on: Growth Issues


black: existing wineries & left turn lanes
red: proposed or approved

The Silverado Trail, along the east side of the Napa Valley, is still a great ride (for cars and bicycles) at times other than the afternoon rush hour. Well banked curves and maintained surface allow a meditative, almost zen-like, cruise through the rolling landscape of vine rows and valley vistas. It is the ride that defines the Napa Valley as an Eden, a paradise on earth, for visitors and residents alike. It is a last local vestige of America's great passion for the open road. And it is about to disappear.

A major modification to the Reynolds Winery, the last of several wineries being proposed or expanded on the small stretch of the Trail around the Soda Canyon Road junction comes up before the Planning Commission on July 19th 2017. Already in the last few months 3 new wineries, Sam Jasper, Beau Vigne and Grassi, have been approved, adding to the 2 large unbuilt wineries, Corona and Krupp that were approved in previous years. Also the approved Mountain Peak winery at the top of Soda Canyon Road will be adding to the traffic. In all about 350 trips/day will be added to the intersection. The approvals call attention once again to the issue of continued development on this most iconic of Napa's highways.

This particular section of the Trail is becoming quite impacted by proposed wineries. It is a harbinger of the development sprawl happening along the Trail and throughout the county. (As we use every opportunity to point out, there are currently some 100 new or expanding wineries approved, most not yet built. There are some 60 more in the planning department awaiting review (18 more added in 2016). As we have seen lately, the department and commissioners seem invigorated since the election to begin moving as many projects as possible through the pipeline, as they must in their failing attempt to keep up.

Above is a map of the Soda Canyon intersection. There are now at least 8 existing or proposed left turn lumps on the Trail in the 2 minute drive between Hardman Drive and Black Stallion Winery. Little will remain of the 2-lane Trail. It will now be a section fraught with the driving angst of merging traffic. Will all of these turnouts make it safer? Maybe for those forced to become familiar with the concept of middle lane refuges. For most drivers there will still be the heart attack (and involuntary swerve), as a car dashes out from the left straight at their car and at the last second turns into the refuge lane.

The number of vehicle trips generated by the proposed wineries is adding up. Counting the Mountain Peak project, up Soda Canyon Road next to me, there are now almost 360 more trips/day planned of this bit of the Trail. That's only 3% of the 11,000 daily vehicles that use the Trail at this point. Is the increase significant? Soda Canyon Road is already rated at Level of Service (LOS) F on weekday and Saturday afternoons and traffic signals are already warranted on weekday afternoons. They will shortly be needed on Saturdays as well. It is harrowing to make the left turn into the continuous stream of 55 mph traffic at rush hour. The traffic backs up behind the Soda Canyon stop sign waiting for one's rendezvous with fate. Perhaps all the left turn bumps and merging traffic will slow things enough to make the turn less dangerous? I doubt it.

The Soda Canyon intersection, like many intersections along the Trail and Hwy 29 already requires signalization for safe operation. The cost of those signals are contributed to by mitigations fees added to the use permits. The signals don't get put in, I think, not just because that mitigation fees aren't enough to cover the costs (and the money is needed elsewhere), but because everyone knows what signalization means - a rural place is becoming a suburb. It is the death of the open road.

This map begins to give a sense of the winery strip mall that the rest of the Trail will become in the future. There are still 3 or 4 parcels in this stretch available for wineries . Given the present trajectory, projects will be proposed soon. (The property just north of the Reynolds Winery has recently sold to be developed into the Ellman Estate Vineyards with no doubt a future winery) It is logical that the lower part of the Trail will reach winery buildout the earliest. Looking up into the valley from Skyline Park, one can sense the urban landscape oozing north. The widening of the Trail, now being done one left turn bulge at a time, reflects that flow.

Is it too late to save the Silverado Trail? The openness of the landscape along its route defines Napa County to the rest of the world. As the area around Soda Canyon Road shows, that iconic image will become screened and diminished by development if more protections are not put in place. It is past time to realize that the Trail is more important to Napa than just an access route to ever more wineries or just traffic relief from Hwy 29. The expansive views from the road are the mental images that everyone retains of this place.

If the present development trend continues, the enjoyment of the Trail as the meditative cruise needed to be at one with the rolling majesty of the valley and its bounty, a single experience more important than all the winery "experiences" combined in maintaining Napa's image as a premier wine making region, will soon be gone.

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My other take on a similar theme, the visual damage to the Trail's Edenistic landscape caused by winery construction, is here.
Also related: The Trail at Soda Canyon is drying up.

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[Email sent to Dep Planding Director John McDowell regarding this]

Mr. McDowell,

Sorry for this rambling note - I know you are busy.

I wanted to thank you for going out on a limb to voice your concerns yesterday about the potential for art advertising to become a big issue in the future and the need to get on top of it now. You know better than everyone else, the policy seems to come only after irreparable damage has been done. Director Morrison's disinterest in confronting the issue was disappointing. It is obvious that with the branding success of the rabbit, every vanity vintner in the county will want to put their personal artistic stink on the Napa landscape to drag in tourists.

This relates to a concern that has been brought up by the Reynolds Winery. I will probably be sending in this screed in some modified form to commissioners when the time comes. As usual not too much about the specific project, more about the trend that the project is contributing to. The area around the Soda Canyon junction is beginning to reach buildout levels

My question - is it too late to save the Silverado Trail? - is one that needs to be asked of the planning department. I would argue that the openness of the landscape along the Trail defines Napa County to the rest of the world. As the area around Soda Canyon Road shows, (and the Titus winery showed) that iconic image is becoming screened and diminished by development. And now we have billboards masquerading as art to worry about. The Trail is not on the state's list of eligible scenic highways. (Incredibly, only the most urbanized roads in the county are eligible). Has anyone at the county proposed the Trail as a scenic highway? What is necessary to get that process started? I hope that the visual importance of the Trail to the identity of the Napa Valley is discussed in the revision of the circulation element.

The art as signage issue also brought up another concern that has always bothered me. I assume that the 600' setbacks were initially put in place to protect the agricultural character of the county - buildings set in an agricultural landscape. (Any documents that you know of that explain the thinking behind the setback ordinance?) Yet houses, outbuildings, parking lots or signs (particularly billboard sized pieces of sculpture) have just as great an impact in obstructing the agricultural landscape as a winery building. Why can't the ordinance be expanded, particularly along the Trail, to exclude all urbanization within the setback? (Just as housing is now being proposed to be included in allowable building development area?)

I took up David Heitzman's request to google "Napafication'. It seems to be synonymous, whether in positive or negative articles on wine around the world, with wine regions becoming tourist traps. I think I have been very naive in thinking we can protect a place from a fate that has already occurred.