Supervisors OK Definition of Agriculture. Final Vote to Come
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Stephen J Donoviel | Apr 21, 2017

Defining agriculture is a seemingly simple task. Webster New World Dictionary has the following definition: The science and art of farming; work of cultivating the soil, producing crops, and raising livestock. Various trade and citizen groups have addressed the definition in the Napa County General Plan and its land use policy, codes and ordinances, and this has proven vexing over the past decades and is an example of the saying, “the devil is in the details.”

On April 1, 2008, the Board of Supervisors proclaimed April to be Agricultural Preserve Appreciation Month and pledged to support the letter and the intent of the Ag Preserve. That Proclamation honored the visionary leaders who in the late 1960s, “…realized that agriculture is and should continue to be the predominant land use in the fertile valley and foothill areas of Napa County, where uses incompatible to agriculture should be precluded and where the development of urban type uses would be detrimental to continuance of agriculture and the maintenance of open spaces, which are economic and aesthetic attributes and assets of Napa County.”

The Proclamation summarized several milestones:
April 9, 1968--Supervisors adopted Ordinance 274, establishing the Ag Preserve District (APD) protecting 25,950 acres from urban development.

1979--Supervisors adopted Ordinance 610, increasing the minimum parcel size in the APD from 20 acres to 40 acres.

1980--Voters passed Measure A, limiting population growth in the unincorporated county areas to 1% per year.

November 6,1990--Voters passed Measure J, which spoke to certain land use Elements of the General Plan of June 7,1983 and prohibited changes without a vote of the people (emphasis mine).

The Finding and Purpose Section of Measure J reads in part:

“Uncontrolled urban encroachment into agricultural and watershed areas will impair agriculture and threaten the public health, safety and welfare by causing increased traffic congestion, associated air pollution and potentially serious water problems, such as pollution, depletion and sedimentation of available water resources. Such urban encroachment, or ‘leap-frog development,’ would eventually result in both the unnecessary, expensive extension of public services and facilities and inevitable conflicts between urban and agricultural uses. The unique character of Napa County and quality of life of county residents depend on the protection of a substantial amount of open space lands. The protection of such lands not only ensures the continued viability of agriculture, but also protects the available water supply and contributes to flood control and the protection of wildlife, environmentally sensitive areas and irreplaceable natural resources.”

Measure J was tested all the way to the California Supreme Court where it was upheld. Subsequently, Measure P, which readopted portions of the General Plan land use tenets of J, viz., agricultural, watershed and open space lands could not be re-designated and made available for more intensive development without a vote of the people.

Over the years, something has gone terribly awry with the codification and implementation of the vision and wisdom of the leaders in the 1960s, the drafters of Measures J and P and the wishes of the people who voted for those measures. Decades ago, the activities of agriculture, which had little or no regulatory restriction, were pretty much as Webster’s definition encompassed, and the “rural lifestyle” prevailed. Over time, more and different activities have been added and changed to those originally assigned to agriculture. Recently, activities related not to agriculture, per se, but to the business of agriculture, such as housing, marketing, branding, entertaining, and serving food, have taken center stage ahead of the product (wine) and have resulted in the uber-glitzy experiences that have been leapfrogging through our Valley.

The regulatory language related to the implementation of what was meant to protect our Valley, its farming and its citizens has been ratified without attention to CEQA and EIR analyses, resulting in the problems we currently experience and those the visionaries hoped to avoid. These problems include but are not limited to multiple ecological degradations, markedly increased traffic congestion, which results in increased driving hazards and road damage, and pressure on all infrastructure spheres.

Two perspectives seem to have emerged to the latest revisions to the definition of agriculture and modification of the zoning code that the supervisors favored in their vote of the first reading on April 3, 2017. One perspective views the revisions as “no big deal” and a mere alignment of regulatory language, and the other, to which I belong, views the revisions not only as an assault on the English language, but more importantly as an assault on the hopes and expectations of the visionaries and the voice of the people who passed Measures J and P. Land use changes per J and P can be made solely by the supervisors if certain, specific conditions are met, and these specific conditions are not being met. Therefore, I believe the supervisors should place this issue as an Initiative for the voters to decide in 2018. If you agree that we citizens of Napa should have a say in this matter, please let your supervisor know ASAP since their second vote will probably be coming soon.

This LTE appeared In Napa Register 4/19/17: The Definition of Agriculture.

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