SodaCanyonRoad | Billboards - Napa style

Billboards - Napa style

Bill Hocker | Nov 19, 2015 on: Tourism Issues

At the Nov 18th Planning Commission meeting, Chair Phillips had agendized an issue that seemed to have received scant attention so far: the big Bunny Foo Foo phenomenon. Art as advertising.

The signage at wineries is regulated by the county's sign ordinance. Signs are limited in area and height and the dimensions are somewhat modest. This results for the most part in long low signs that intrude rather minimally into the landscape. The desire of most wineries to maintain a sophisticated image means that they are generally a low key recognition of the winery's presence. The intent of the sign ordinance is worth repeating:

    "A. It is the purpose of this chapter to eliminate excessive and confusing sign displays which do not relate to the premises on which they are located; to eliminate hazards to pedestrians and motorists brought about by distracting sign displays; to ensure that signs are used as identification and not as advertisement; and to preserve and improve the appearance of the unincorporated area of the county as a place in which to live, work, and visit.

    "B. It is the intent of these regulations to protect an important aspect of the economic base of the county by preventing the destruction of the natural beauty and environment of the county which is instrumental in attracting nonresidents who come to visit, trade and vacation; to safeguard and enhance property values; to protect public and private investment in buildings and open space; and to protect the public health, safety and general welfare."

Publicly visible art in Napa County, it turns out, has no such restrictions. Indeed, as planning director Morrison pointed out at the meeting, such art has in the past been considered an expression of free speech protected by the Constitution.

Until now it has been mostly through the architecture of their wineries that vintners have tried to lure tourists out of their cars. We now have a Tuscan castle, French, Italian and Persian palaces, fairy tale confections, and any number of modernist "statements" (one with an arial tram) all vying for the tourist's attention. But there are building setbacks (though not always enforced). And such architectural exhibitionism doesn't reflect the barn-ish "Napaesque" image that many vintners often, to their credit, want to project. Art, particularly large scale environment art, on the other hand, has no such moderating influences. As in the case of Bunny Foo Foo, the grotesquely oversized rabbit cavorting in the Hall Winery's front yard, the intent of the artist and owner alike is to shout "here I am, here I am".

For the meeting, the county presented some photos of the Bunny Foo Foo trend beginning to occur in Napa (taken against an unusually spectacular sky). They are here. None are overly offensive in themselves, although the Ca'Nani kitsch does cause a bit of nausea. But as with everything talked about in the last 2 years there is the issue of cumulative impacts. Bunny Foo Foo alone in the landscape might have the captivating effect that the artist and the Halls wanted. But if the rabbit is followed on the next property by a giant cornucopia, and on the next by a dinosaur and on the next by a reclining vixen and on the next by a giant hand holding a grape, the captivation, I would argue, is lessened. So much effort is now put into preventing the destruction of the Napa landscape and yet the unregulated damage that might be caused by the hundreds of vanity vintners desperately seeking tourist attention to keep their marginal wine making efforts alive may create a carnival landscape that will put Discovery Kingdom to shame.

As was pointed out by one of the speakers at the meeting, absent ordinances regulating the art in the way that buildings are regulated with setbacks and height limits, even offensive art may be placed on private property without regard to the sensibilities of those forced to see it. Offensive art, perhaps a giant champagne bottle with two large Del Dotto amphorae at its base, has yet to make its way to Napa's vineyards. But whether it is one objectionable piece or the destruction of a prized valley vista littered with sculptural nonsense, at some point we will all go through the contortions of trying to regulate it after the damage has been done - much as happened with the viewshed ordinance and the conservation ordinance. This is the right time to bring up the issue, and shame on the 3 members of the planning commission unwilling to recognize these works of art for what they really are: advertising signage, billboards really, for the wineries and a further destruction of the natural beauty that the county claims it wants to prevent with its signage ordinance.