I could never have imagined as a 7-year-old that my grandmother's story of "Feeding the Donkey,” one of some 500, by the 13th-century Sufi populist philosopher Nasreddin Hodja, would someday grant me a look under the cover of the Napa County planning philosophy.
As the story goes, in order to economize on the amount of oats his donkey ate, Hodja began cutting down on it. Seeing that after a few days, the donkey was doing fine, he continued reducing the amount little by little. One morning, Hodja found his donkey dead in the barn. When neighbors inquired, Hodja wailed: "Ahh, my poor donkey! He died just as he was getting used to hunger!” We are all too aware that incrementally increasing our food intake can kill us just as well.
The California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) was enacted to protect us all from the negative effects of projects by mandating mitigation measures to offset them. For any given development impact -- traffic being one of many -- CEQA requires evaluation thresholds ranging from "significant,” to "less than significant,” to "none.” Unfortunately, the Board of Supervisors has been employing the reverse Hodja model for decades.
As traffic is allowed to increase little by little by each new project, it elevates the benchmark of volume against which the effect of any new project is being evaluated. When 10 added to 100 in the past was significant, it appears less than significant when added to 1,000 today. This skewed process can be experienced every Tuesday and Wednesday when the supervisors and commissioners meet for the residents' weekly force-feeding sessions of every traffic-contributing winery and event. Exactly what CEQA was supposed to protect them from.
But there are two problems with the county's manipulation of the numbers: The public has paid for a road system designed for anticipated traffic flow capacities appropriate for an agricultural community and sufficient to support a healthy economy. Once this traffic level is exceeded to facilitate overblown economic activity, the poor country donkey of agriculture is being flattened to death under the more than 181,330 cars in and out of the valley each day (Fehr & Peers study, December 2014), all rubber-stamped by a series of disingenuous "less than significant" impacts.
Even more serious: CEQA affords the public additional protections by mandating that "the cumulative impacts of other projects, past, current and probable future ones shall be considered in granting any use permit.” This means that every potential winery with its delivery trucks, visitors and special events allowed under the zoning law, is a potential development that must be factored in CEQA if we want to maintain any semblance of a long-term balance. Not so in this county where ever more is better no matter what.
The truth is that the supervisors never refuse anyone who comes before them arguing that their proposed winery has the same production, visitations and events as the one they approved five years before. In misapplying CEQA, they invoke "precedent,” "existing standards" and "niceness of the applicant" in approving it. They refuse to acknowledge the fact that baseline standards are constantly shifting with every new project.
The arguments they hide behind are not truthful: "We need to keep growing our economy.” But continued growth has reached the point where it comes at too high a cost. Population growth has only been 20 percent in the past 25 years while traffic has increased six-fold.
Their argument, "Traffic increases no matter what we do,” doesn't pass scrutiny either. Only 9 percent of all traffic is pass-through traffic. All 91 percent of it is legislated by them, by increasing number of wineries, visitor attractions, demand for accommodations and low-paid commuters.
CEQA has given the supervisors the tool -- mandated by the state -- to argue that each 50 more cars today are not the same as the 50 more cars of five years ago, that one more 100,000-gallon winery today is not the same as the one of five years ago. By avoiding the difficult decisions, they have paved the road for the drop-by-drop cumulative degradation of the Napa Valley's agricultural environment.
"Ahh, our poor Napa! She died as she was just getting used to binging!"
In the end, maintaining the balance is our collective responsibility and it is high time we do something about it.