Although the "no project" alternative is discussed in more detail in the DEIR, the county's executive summary gets more immediately to the issue:
"Under this alternative, the project would not be built on the project site, and as a result, none of the approvals that would be required by the County under the project would occur. The project site would remain in its existing condition, with the unoccupied residence/bed and breakfast and 2.2 acres of vineyards continuing to operate under their existing use permits."
and the summary concludes:
"The no project alternative is the environmentally superior alternative, as all of the significant impacts of the project would be avoided. However, the no project alternative would not meet any of the projectís objectives because a winery would not be constructed on-site."
I have always been a bit mystified by the "no project" alternative, since it seems to be immediately dismissed in every CEQA review as not meeting the project objectives defined by the developer. Why is it even discussed as an alternative if it's such a non-starter?
The basic purpose of CEQA is to inform officials and the public about the environmental impacts of development projects so that they can make an informed decisions in approving (or denying) them. Questioning the developer's objectives doesn't seem to be a part of the process, however. But it should be. In almost every case, the "no project" alternative is the "environmentally superior alternative" - just as this DEIR notes. Why shouldn't we always consider the environmentally superior alternative rather than letting environmentally inferior project after project get built?
In the Yountville Hill project what are the objectives - really? A winery capable of producing 100,000 gal/yr. Even if it does make wine, for what purpose? It will be making wine that will otherwise be made in an existing winery. It will sell wine that will otherwise be sold in other ways. It's addition to the county's agricultural economy will be marginal if not non-existent.
Of course "agriculture", as we found out in the APAC hearings last year, doesn't just mean growing grapes and making wine, it means the "marketing of wine", the industry-approved euphemism and excuse for wine tourism. - In fact, much of the "wine industry" has become just an extension of the Napa tourism industry. The county knows this - they spend $6 million a year not to promote the exportation of wine to a world market, but to promote the importation of a world of tourists. One real reason for this project's existence is the 55,000 more tourist "experiences" it will provide each year. If the tourism industry is to continue to expand, more venues are needed, just as more events and hotels and resorts and upscale shops and limousines are needed and just as more parking lots and workers and worker housing and shopping centers and ultimately more freeways are needed to make the industry possible. It is a cascade of urban development that will eventually consume the agricultural base. But this is no longer really about protecting agriculture - is it?.
Much of the wine industry has also become an extension of the real estate industry. You know it - Napa ag land prices are no longer based on the return expected from grape production, even expensive Napa grapes. They are based on the return expected as building sites to house the haute couture brands of wine corporations or the ego statements of the world's plutocrats. This county is no longer about farm land and crops, it's about the development potential of the open space left from 48 years preserving land for an agricultural economy and a rural way of life. Now, in the age of Trump, the time has come to make a deal. In this new age even vineyard development, as Hall Ranch in Sonoma shows and as Walt Ranch here portends, is no longer about agriculture - vineyards are just another feature used to sell housing estates and trophy properties.
With the links to tourism and real estate embedded, much of the wine industry has also become an extension of the construction industry. What is the wine industry's response to the many impacts of the high end real estate and tourism booms? More housing construction and better transportation infrastructure. And much more gravel to build it all. One supervisor promoted heavily by the wine industry, even shows houses on the hilltops of his campaign poster.
In many instances "the wine industry" has now become the voter-friendly metonym for the collection of urban development interests whose goal everywhere and at all times has been to convert raw land (and agricultural land) into construction projects. Many places may welcome such a transformation - the push for urban development throughout the world is driven not just by the expansion of populations, but by the increasing standard of living that cities promise. But in the 1960's the resident growers and vintners of Napa County, in an early example of pushback against the development orthodoxy that built America, established an agricultural preserve to fend off urban development. It was done to preserve an industry dependent on agriculture but also to preserve a desirable rural way of life disappearing in suburban housing tracts throughout the bay area. That commitment to preserving "the agricultural lands and rural character that we treasure" is still a part of the vision statement of the Napa County General Plan. But for how much longer?
Two and a half years ago, the Yountville Hill project kicked off a debate about the impacts that tourism was having on the rural character of the county. In the last year the wine industry, through APAC and an election, essentially beat back opposition from community groups and individuals all over the county whose confrontation with development projects in their backyards revealed a much more urban future ahead. And developers now seem to be pushing ahead wth a renewed sense of entitlement. Is this the end of an era for the protection of the rural character left in the county?
The Yountville Hill project may again be a weather vane to see if there is still a breeze propelling the rural preservation movement. The project is unnecessary to support real agriculture in the county. It damages a significant woodland viewshed on a major highway with parking lots, retaining walls and an ominous protruding box. It exacerbates the traffic on an already congested road, its visitors will further strain the water and infrastructure resources throughout the county, a tab that will eventually be picked up by residents. It's tourism ambitions strain the confines of the its parcel. It WILL further diminish the "rural character we treasure" here. The goal of the project is not to build a 100000 gal winery. It is to provide a hilltop vantage point for 55,000 visitors each year to enjoy an expensive sip of wine and bite to eat. This project should not be built. The "no project" alternative, the "superior environmental alternative", is there. It is time to accept it.