SodaCanyonRoad | May 20th joint meeting letter to PC and BOS

May 20th joint meeting letter to PC and BOS

Bill Hocker | May 19, 2014 on: The WDO

[Letter to BOS and Planning Director for Joint Meeting on May 20,2014]

May 19, 2014

County of Napa
Supervisor Bill Dodd, District 4
Deputy Planning Director John McDowell

County Administration Building
1195 Third Street, Suite 310
Napa, CA 94559

Re: Agenda Item 9E, Joint meeting of the Board of Supervisors and Planning Commission on May 20, 2014

Dear Supevisor Dodd and Director McDowell,

I am Bill Hocker, and I reside at 3460 Soda Canyon Road in the Rector Creek watershed.

I commend the County for its decision to begin a review of issues that have become quite unexpectedly of concern to me in the last two months. The fact that you are discussing them means, perhaps, that I am not alone in my newfound interest. A winery-tourism project has been proposed in my neighborhood, in my backyard, on the Rector plateau, and I have become one of many concerned citizens (often called NIMBY’s) that face a degradation of the rural lives and environments that are our reasons for living here. Thank you for this opportunity to voice my concerns. Two of the issues to be discussed are of great concern to me:

Noticing on Developmental proposals:

300 feet may be appropriate for urban environments but is rather skimpy when the official minimum parcel size is 160 acres. More importantly, a defined radius of notification doesn’t consider specific circumstances. The tourism-winery proposed for my backyard is 6 miles up a dead end road. It envisions 25,000 visitors (tourists + employees) per year. The project will have major impacts on the several hundred residents that use the road. Yet at most 4 neighbors will receive notices. It should not be up to those residents to do the work of the developer or County in making the impacts known to all who will be affected. County staff visited the project site during the review process – part of their review, acting in the interests of their community, should be to assess the extent to which notification should be required.

Also, 20 days is a very short period to digest and evaluate and prepare a rebuttal for large projects that will affect the future of an entire community. Developers’ consultants have had at least a year (often many years) working in concert with the planning department to massage codes and ordinances full of ambiguities, interpretations and occasional loopholes to produce feasibility reports that are naturally biased toward their clients’ interests. In an ideal world, our County government should be charged with producing those reports by independent consultants so that the interests of the many residents who must live with the impacts of a project are balanced against those of the few wealthy individuals who will profit from it. Lacking this perhaps costly service to the community, then at least the County should provide a less costly service to the community by allowing the same amount of time to impacted residents to prepare their case for public review as the developer has had in making his/her proposal.

Visitation / Marketing / Cumulative Impact Analysis

I again commend the Board of Supervisors and Planning Commissioners for their courage in addressing an issue that has led to so many other irate NIMBY’s like myself to come forward. Collectively, I think, our backyards represent the future environment of the County. Hopefully this meeting is an indication that our complaints about traffic-water-noise-lights-and-the-quality-of-life will warrant more consideration in future hearings. I feel that our concerns may, in fact, coincide with those of some grape growers and vintners who foresee changes in the economic base of the County from agriculture to tourism.

I also commend the Planning Director for the clearest governmental statement yet that there is a downside to the quantity of winery-tourism projects and expansions approved in the last couple of years. I hope that this meeting is the beginning of a process that will see an end to the provisions of the WDO that have left an open door to an economy based on tourism and its attendant impacts, rather than grape growing and wine production.

My understanding is that the Agricultural Preserve was created in 1968 in the knowledge that small-scale agriculture cannot compete profitably with almost any other land use endeavor. The Preserve was set up to drastically limit what uses Napa County land could be used for beyond agriculture. But developers have always been pressing against the dykes trying to find a way to turn Napa land to more profitable use.

The Winery Definition Ordinance of 1990 seemed to be a response to the development pressure. Wine tourism, a commercial activity in any other part of the world, was redefined as a subordinate and accessory part of the agricultural process. In 2010, as a recession took its toll on the wine industry, the tourism restrictions were eased even more, to allow marketing plans that included meetings and events previously forbidden and to allow more extensive service of food with wine. That change was on top of the State‘s ‘Evans Bill’ of 2008 allowing on-site consumption of wine purchased at the winery. As the economy has rebounded the new rules seem to have tipped some profitability scale and development proposals have been coming in at the rate of several per month since.

Reviewing past Planning Commission meeting minutes, in the last year alone proposals amounting to nearly 1,000,000 gal/yr in winery production capacity, 300,000 sf of increased winery area, and 450,000 new visitor allowances have been permitted. Almost one new tourism-winery is being added to the County each month and existing wineries are beefing up marketing plans and infrastructure to tap into this expected new wave of tourism.

Yet each new project has impacts not beneficial, in my mind, to the maintenance of the Ag Preserve. The project proposed in my backyard presents the issue well. It would be the second winery on the Rector plateau. It proposes 100,000 gals/yr in capacity and 18000 tourist visitations per year on 40 acres. The project eliminates at least 4-5 acres of vines to accommodate the parking and picnic areas and other accessory uses for tourism, as well as the other functions to accommodate a large winery on a small site. When asked if the developer would forgo the tourist component the answer was a flat no. It was clear that the tourism component was more important, meaning more profitable, than the vines lost.

But operating profitably without tourism is possible. The first and only winery on the plateau, Antica Napa Valley, has operated since 1987 profitably with essentially no tourism. It is a clear example that given prudent development decisions, agricultural-winery operations can be profitable, and they fulfill the County’s commitment to an agricultural economy and maintain the environment that we mere residents cherish.

The potential loss of vines in my backyard is small, perhaps 10% of the site. But their significance was probably best stated in the “findings of fact” at the beginning of the 1990 WDO:

    (e) Napa County is one of the smallest counties in California and within the County areas suitable for quality vineyards are limited and irreplaceable. Any project that directly or indirectly results in the removal of existing or potential vineyard land from use depletes the inventory of such land forever.

    (f) The cumulative effect of such projects if far greater than the sum of individual projects. The interspersing of non-agricultural structures and activities throughout agricultural areas in excess of what already exists will result in a significant increase in the problems and costs of maintaining vineyards and discourage the continued use of the land for agricultural purposes.

This is exactly what many of these new winery-tourism projects are doing. Nibbling up bits of vineyard property for inefficient wineries, tasting rooms and parking lots. The dangers, articulated over 20 years ago, are now being realized. As long as current tourism incentives are part of the equation, they will drive the development decisions. There is not a paucity of wineries to process Napa grapes. In fact, pressure seems to be increasing against the 75% rule as new winery capacity continues to outpace new vineyard development. Continuing tourism profit incentives for new winery developments will only increase that pressure.

I wish that the County would challenge any of the developers with projects approved in the last two years to renounce their marketing plans and to demonstrate that their decision to build their winery was based on a desire to engage in agriculture and make wine and not on the desire to build a winery as a tourist attraction. I suspect that many would decide not to build. If it is the increased profitability of tourism that is driving this trend then the concept of the Ag Preserve, to protect agriculture in the face of more profitable development, is failing. It is time to review those protections once again.

Thank you again for this opportunity to present my views.