More tourists please
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Bill Hocker | Dec 21, 2017

NVR 12/27/17: B Cellars wins Napa County permission for more visitors

On Dec 20th, the County Planning Commission approved the visitation expansion of the B Cellars winery on Oakville Road. No change in wine output, just 79% more tourists and 87% more traffic, and 6 more employees in need of affordable housing. 3 similar requests for visitation-only increases were approved in 2017, and 2 more are on the calendar for the first commission hearing on January 17th. Is it a trend? As I have mentioned before, producing vineyard acreage has barely budged in the last decade, but winery tourism requests have increased by at least 2.4 million visitors slots. (Side note: average visitation slot requests each year more than doubled after 2010 changes to the WDO allowing food to be served at tastings.)

There is an argument to be made that the transition from a wine producing economy to a tourism economy is the easiest direction for "growth" in Napa county. The amount of plantable acres of vines has become limited by a variety of constraints. The number of tourism venues that can be built is only limited by the number of wealthy individuals seeking a winery-of-their-own and the willingness of politicians in need of campaign contributions to allow their construction.

One difficulty is that such tourism development was never really considered in the impacts presented in the EIR for the 2008 County General Plan. And tourism has impacts: an increased daily population, increased burden on the utility infrastructure, increased work force needing housing and services, increased traffic, increased need for lodging, dining, and shopping venues for the transient population. And there's the loss of community character as towns and rural neighborhoods go from resident-centric to tourist-centric: the loss of small town life as density increases; the loss of the rural landscape as more wine-tourism venues occupy once-unobstructed vineyards and wooded hillsides.

James Hickey, the Napa County Planning Director at the heart of the General Plan that grew out of the Ag Preserve ordinance, has just died. I met him only once, at Volker Eisele's memorial. The two together had much to do with the preservation of a rural economy in Napa County for the last 50 years, and their skills, unfortunately, have never been more needed than they are now. A new era of urban development is under way in the county and the clear foresight and political skill that they brought to the table are sorely missed. Housing development was their bogeyman. And they managed to thwart it better than every other community in the bay area. Tourism is now the prime urban development threat in the county (along with south-county industrial development). Tourism development, of course, ramps up the demand for more housing development, and every other kind of urban expansion. Yet in an era of developer's dominance in governmental affairs, local to national, it is difficult to make the case that maintaining a rural-small town place in an urban world is a worthwhile endeavor.

Many of the stories making the news this year have revolved around the pushback of residents to increasing urban development in the county. Our own battle over the Mountain Peak winery, and the commercialization of the remote rural parts of the county, began at the first Planning Commission meeting of 2017. The Woodland Initiative petition garnered 6000 plus signatures for the second time. Some see it as anti-wine-industry. I see it as preserving the natural landscape from vineyard estate development. The helicopter initiative, spawned by the visceral reaction to the Palmaz proposal and the prospect of helicopters flying to all those vineyard estates, is headed for the ballot. Unfortunately the Raymond Winery decision represented the clearest transfer from agriculture to tourism urbanization. And concern was continually voiced over the pace of hotel development and its impact on the character of small town life in the City of Napa. The Napa Oaks project was one of the few actual victories, probably only temporary, for those lamenting the loss of Napa's natural landscape.

In 2015 the Board of Supervisors recognized the concern of residents about the proliferation of tourism development and they created APAC. But the process seemed to harden the resolve of the "wine industry" in their push to seek more profits from tourism than from wine. The recommendations to curtail winery proliferation were at first watered down by the committee and then ignored altogether by the Board. Recommendations to rectify abuse of use permits have been placed on a slow track process to legalize all abuses. The concerns about tourism urbanization were un-addressed.

Back to B Cellars: Several tour operators spoke in favor of the project - It was just the kind of high quality wine pairing experience they want to bring their customers to. (My previous rant about the food-centricity of B Cellars is here.) One person, a neighbor, spoke about the undesirable impacts that a tourism facility has on the quiet enjoyment of their property. Ironically it was Paul Woolls, whose own Woolls Ranch project has threatened to destroy the quiet enjoyment of the property owners on Mt. Veeder Road since it was proposed in 2011.

Human nature, not hypocrisy, may be the best expression for the behavior of many in the "wine industry" who turn a blind eye to the rising impacts of tourism until it's the peaceful enjoyment of their own properties that is being invaded. Such was the case on Yountville Hill, on Raymond, on Girard, on Flynnville, on Melka and on B Cellars. My guess is that most vintners want to live and make their living in a beautiful slow-paced rural place. Yet their concern fades when it's someone else's backyard that is being despoiled. Without the support of the wine industry, any effort to curb the urbanization of Napa County will be impossible to achieve. Pretending that winery event-centers are "agriculture" isn't good enough. Unfortunately, beginning with two projects at the Planning Commission that are only about tourism expansion, and under a Board of Supervisors that seems determined to approve any construction project that comes before them, this year does not bode well for our rural character.

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