SodaCanyonRoad | Mountain Peak: the road issue

Mountain Peak: the road issue

Bill Hocker | Jan 6, 2017 on: Mountain Peak Winery

Tourbus stranded on the Soda Canyon Grade

A surprise witness

In perhaps one of the few unexpected moments of the Jan 4th, 2017 Planning Commission hearing to consider the Mountain Peak winery project, Comm. Basayne asked County Road Engineer Rick Marshall about the comparison made by the planning department between this project and several other 100,000 gal wineries on mountain roads in the county. His very informative response:

    " I think a tough decision for you today is the distinction between roads that are dead end versus those that are not. And so some of the roads that were mentioned in the testimony [on the planning dept's list of similar wineries and the applicant's own list of similar projects] are not dead end roads. They are otherwise very similar, they’re narrow, they’re windy, they’re mountainous terrain, but they’re not dead end. This one is. It’s not the only one. I was trying to think of - you know as soon as I say it, likely somebody will disagree - an example to me that’s similar is Diamond Mountain. It’s a similar narrow windy, mountainous terrain, and it’s a dead end.."

He then concluded by saying "Is it appropriate to put this land use on this dead end road?... I hand it back to you at that point." which drew more than a few laughs in the room. But, of course, he did express his opinion in making the distinction between the two types of mountain roads: this road is different to him, and should probably be treated differently by the planning commissioners.

He didn’t know how big or what the visitation of the Diamond Mountain winery was. We had to look it up: Diamond Mountain Winery is a 10,000 gal/yr winery with 1500 visitors/yr, a tenth the scale of Mountain Peak.

Unfunded impacts

Rick Marshall also provided additional words of discouragement for the project. Some of the commissioners have been trying to push road improvements on Soda Canyon Road to the top of the county's priority list in an effort to dampen residents concerns over the dangers of the road shown in their testimony of opposition to the project.

Mr. Marshall gave no offers of support. The county will not have significant funds until 2019 (from Measure T taxes) to begin major repairs on all of the county's 450 miles of roads, and there are many more significant roads on their priority list before the lightly used mountain roads (particularly dead end roads that serve a very small population).

The lack of funding to maintain the county's roads, an obvious sore spot for Mr. Marshall, raises the issue that I have often mentioned on this site: the unfunded costs of development. (see here as well)

At every planning commission meeting, in the county or in the municipalities, the point almost always comes up that new development, whether buildings or vineyards, will increase the amount of tax revenues flowing to government coffers based on the more productive use of the properties, a good reason to approve the projects.

Unfortunately Mr. Marshall's situation shows what a lie those claims are. An enormous amount of vineyard development has gone on in the county in the last 25 years, a substantial amount on the Rector plateau. 1500 acres of vines and numerous high end homes have been developed here. Taxes on the high-end wines made from those high-end grapes, and the TOT from tourists here to drink the wines, and the increased value of the properties, and the fees charged to permit the developments, should be contributing to a budget surplus in the county used to provide basic services like road maintenance for property access. The reality is that that new tax money flowing in can't keep up with the costs of dealing with the impacts created by the development.

On Soda Canyon Road the (literal) impacts of heavy equipment traversing the road to create and tend all those vines has taken a substantial toll. Yet the county doesn't have the money to repair the road and must depend on tax bonds levied on all of the county's citizens to pay the costs. Everyone living in Napa County is essentially subsidizing the few owners profiting from the vineyards, as they would to provide safe access to Mountain Peak. At the July 20th hearing, Dan McFadden, the road's biggest brain, brutally assessed the issues facing the County in approving a commercial winery at the top of the road.

There is an argument to be made that governments (and the taxpayers that fund them) would be financially better off by not allowing development in their domains and letting nature have its way wherever possible, or at least by charging the substantial fees that would really cover the long term impact costs of development, fees that would make developers much more careful in their development decisions. Of course that is not the American way, a culture built on unencumbered land speculation over the last two centuries. Unfortunately, we must continually pay the price, perhaps especially now in a new era of developers, to subsidize that speculation.

A question of liability

And finally Mr. Marshall addressed the rate of accidents on the road. He indicated that he monitors carefully all accidents on Napa County roads to determine places that need mediation to insure the health and safety of the public. Soda Canyon Road does not stand out in its rate of accidents on the mountain roads in the county. It is different, however, in that most roads have individual accident prone points that the county can focus on in their remediations. Soda Canyon road has a much more even distribution of accidents along the road, and is much more difficult to remediate with a single fix.

After our extensive public campaign to point out the dangers of Soda Canyon Road, with hundreds of pages of testimony and graphic and tabular exhibits in both the Relic winery ABC hearing and the Mountain Peak hearings, one thing is abundantly clear: as an access for a tourism facility like Mountain Peak, and with the county's acknowledged lack of resources to mitigate any dangers, the county will have clear and documented liability in approving this project should a tourbus fall into the canyon on the grade.