Daniel Mufson | Oct 14, 2015
October 03, 2015 5:30 pm •
It is clear that Napa County is entering one of its periods of soul-searching, periods that in the past have produced the Ag Preserve, the Winery Definition Ordinance, and alternating waves of growth and no-growth sentiment.
The talk is much the same as previous rounds — what is agriculture? What activities are appropriate for rural areas? What is the best way to preserve our unusual swaths of open space?
And, of course, how much of a good thing is too much?
This new era began as a series of diverse and seemingly unrelated controversies, in various spots in the county with names that meant little to anyone outside the neighborhood: Walt Ranch, Silver Rose, Yountville Hill, Davies Winery, Syar quarry.
Gradually, it became clear that there was a broader set of common threads, particularly a sense by residents in these areas that their concerns were not being addressed. They began to meet at planning commission and supervisor meetings and other venues and compare notes.
This loose group in part led to the March “Growth Summit,” which in turn led to the recent Agricultural Protection Advisory Committee, which looked at possible ways to control development and tourist visitation in the Ag Preserve. And it led to an organized group, calling itself Napa Vision 2050.
The Editorial Board met with representatives of this group recently to discuss their history and mission. We were impressed by their passion and organizational ability. We applaud their interest in grassroots politics and making sure that the voices of average residents are represented.
So far, the group has mainly served as a watchdog or devil’s advocate on a series of projects, questioning the assumptions of planners, developers and environmental consultants. They jokingly referred to it as “whack-a-mole,” a process where proposed projects are coming forward so fast that there is little time to do anything but hop from one issue to the next.
While we may or may not agree with their positions on individual projects, we appreciate the role they have taken for themselves. We are also pleased that they share our view that issues in Napa County must be viewed holistically – a problem in Calistoga or St. Helena has implications in Napa and American Canyon and vice versa. The time has passed for the kind of geographic isolationism that has been the hallmark of Napa County life and politics.
It would be easy to dismiss Napa Vision 2050 as a coalition of NIMBYS. Most were motivated to action by projects in their own backyards that would have affected their lives and property values. Most of their activities so far have involved saying what they are against rather than what they are for.
The group members assured us at our meeting that they are aware of the danger of appearing to be NIMBYs, or of falling into the trap of saying only “no.” They said they would develop a positive vision and a political program as inclusive as possible given their diverse membership.
We hope they follow through on this promise. To become an effective political force, they will need to live up to their name and articulate a coherent vision for the county 35 years from now.
More broadly, however, we hope that Vision 2050 — and everyone else interested in development and growth issues — takes a step back and looks at the bigger issues facing the county.
As we have noted before, the details of wine industry growth in the Ag Preserve may be important, and they certainly dominate the discussion today, but they are not the main problem Napa County faces.
Instead, we are facing the results of a large and growing imbalance between housing prices and family incomes. As is the case in the urban areas of San Francisco and the rest of the Bay Area, the middle class is being squeezed out of Napa, leading to increased traffic as workers commute in. The working poor, unable to afford to move out and commute, are being squeezed into substandard and overcrowded conditions in the shadowy corners of our prosperous valley.
We can talk all day long about permits, visitation, setbacks, parcel sizes, variances and code compliance at wineries, but what will really determine how Napa County looks and feels in 2050 is how well we deal with the relentless pressure of gentrification in our cities.
NVR Editorial Board 10/3/15: Napa County In 2050?