A piece of political theater took place on the 3rd floor of the county building last Wednesday: a 5-hour tragedy presenting the unraveling of a decent politician, the debasement of a democratic process, and the potential loss of a another bit of the natural heritage of the the valley. The tourist attraction known as Yountville Hill Winery passed its first hurdle in the long process of becoming another piece of development blight littering the scenic hills and valley of the county. It passed only by dint of 11th hour back-room coercion worthy of Tammany Hall.
After a valiant and brilliant presentaion to preserve the hillside by the neophyte Yountville Hills Neighbors, supported by several responsible vintners in the valley, against a fast-talking developer supported by an entire development industry pimping the natural charms of the Napa Valley and a planning commission that rarely sees a development it can refuse, Commissioner Pope, normally eloquent about preservation before approving developments, let his angst get the better of him and proclaimed his intention to turn down the project. After 5 hours the 4 men of the planning commission, Commissioner Phillips having recused herself from this most important hearing, split 2-2 in their declared voting intentions, Commissioners Pope and Scott in opposition, Commissioners Basayne and Fiddaman in support. A tie meant a refusal and an automatic referral to the Board of Supes - all knew how much the Supes hate to make planning decisions. With their decisions clearly stated but the formal vote not yet taken, developer Sklar, against all protocol, jumped to the microphone to request a continuance, beginning an extended, excruciating search by Chair Fiddaman to find any possible way to delay or avoid the vote they should have already taken. After a gaggle of imperfect alternatives had been grasped at, stuttered over, debated and challenged, a solution finally presented itself: to the stunned silence of a room completely full of exhausted opponents aghast that this fumbling parody of parliamentary process Chair Fiddaman called for - a comfort break!
After the break there was little comfort to be found as Mr. Pope immediately declared his intention to change his mind, a clumsy act of political capitulation that called into question the very foundation of the public deliberative process. But with that, Chair Fiddaman left no second spared to finalize a 3-1 vote in support. We will now always want to know what happened to Mr. Pope during his comfort break.
There are two silver linings: One was that this project presented such an egregious example of the supremacy of toursim over agriculture that the wall of omerta toward tourism-wineries has finally been breached. Some of the most august names in the valley, Beth Novak Milliken, Ren Harris, Volker Eisele, Warren Winiarski, Dennis Groth, Thomas May, Christian Moueix, have returned for the latest battle to preserve the agrarian economy and landscape that has been their legacy to us all.
The second was that Commissioner Scott, in an atmosphere of extreme pressure, ending a 3 year climate of unconditional approval at the commission, had the courage to say no. The many as-yet-unbuilt tourism developments approved in the last 3 years combined with the many, many projects still on their way to the planning department, threaten the rural character and substance of the county. Those projects and the tourism infrastructure they require will eventually overwhelm the business of agriculture, and the vines will slowly disappear. One of our representatives had to be the first to say no, and for that we say thank you.
Yountville Hill will, no doubt, still end up in front of the Board of Supervisors, and we will be there. But right now we look anxiously to the Raymond Winery Expansion coming up at the next planning commission meeting. It should also be good theater, with as much drama and maybe as much farce but hopefully less tragedy. Please join us.