Open letter to the Planning Commission and the BOS
on the web at:
Bill Hocker | Jan 14, 2015

[this letter remained unsent]

Commissioners and Supervisors

On Wed, Jan 21st the Planning Commission will be reviewing 2 more projects in the litany of applications for new wineries and winery expansions that have come before you in the last few years. The two wineries up for review, the new Girard winery and the Larkmead winery expansion, both just outside of Calistoga, will add 54,000 tourist slots/yr and perhaps 80 more cars/day going up and down the valley.

I have argued before that tourism is not agriculture, and that the event-centers that continue to consume the vineyards are leading a cascade of development that will eventually overwhelm the agricultural base of the county. More tourists mean more hotels and resorts, which mean more employees, which mean more housing and shopping centers and even more employees, all of which mean more roads and infrastructure. Those new employees, living perhaps in the huge developments at Napa Pipe or Watson Ranch, as Sean Scully has pointed out, will add to the voters more concerned with urban rather than rural issues, and the ability to protect an agricultural economy will diminish exponentially. Eventually agriculture will be tolerated only to the extent that it is a backdrop to draw in tourists, like Cape Cod lobster pots and fishing shacks. The St Helena Window brought up the Butler Report on Tourist Area Life Cycles a while back to illustrate the point. Already those people looking for an authentic wine producing region are headed to Oregon. and even those that have long supported the ag preserve are saying change is inevitable, why fight it. But it is not too late.

Supervisor Dillon, at a recent BOS meeting, said that if agriculture were not a profitable investment then the wine industry would die. The industry does need a sustainable level of profitability, and many wineries have produced sustainable profits for decades with minimal or no tourism. The desire for tourism profits has come from the glut of inefficient and unnecessary vanity wineries now vieing for a relatively fixed grape crop. As grape and land prices have risen in response, profits must increasingly be found elsewhere to justify the business.

The denial of profitability was at the heart of the creation of the ag preserve. The wine industry exists here not because it is the most profitable use of the land (a parking lot can produce more revenue than vines even at $7000/ton), but because the voters of Napa county decided in 1968 that retaining a rural, small-town, agriculture-based life was worth curtailing individuals' right to maximize their profit. The wine industry exists because it has the respect and protection of residents for the quality of life that is its byproduct. But in the traffic that we now experience, in the event-centers that are springing up next to our homes, in the oak and pine forests that are being cleared for development, that respect is being challenged. The environment that is the byproduct of a more profit oriented industry is no longer so bucolic, no longer so easy to support.

At its Jan 7th meeting, the planning commission heard from neighbors concerned about the Anthem Winery expansion on Dry Creek Road. They are organizing to preserve their residential-agricultural neighborhood, just as we on Soda Canyon Road have done, as have the neighbors of Walt Ranch, and those of Woolls Ranch and of Yountville Hill and of Zinfandel Lane. The effort to preserve small-town life is a major issue in St. Helena, in Angwin and in Calistoga. Residents adjacent to the Syar gravel pits are coming forward to express their concern as they and the Atlas Peak communities seek what some would regard as the real 'highest and best use of the land' - leaving it untouched for future generations to know. While each community has specific concerns, all have the concern that development is threatening their treasured quality of life in Napa County.

Under Planning Director Morrison's leadership, the county is undertaking a thorough review of the impacts that are being created by newly built, approved or proposed projects in the last decade in order to chart a development path for the future. The process begins with a joint hearing of the Planning Commission and Board of Supervisors on Mar. 10th. Hopefully further meetings will involve municipal decision makers as well. My wish is that the decision that comes out of those meetings may be that "enough is enough", that we have built a financially successful balance of tourism and agriculture that we need to sustain as is and not try to continually enlarge to satisfy the desire of profiteers. The grapes are finite, the industries and communities that benefit from their presence should be as well. Ever increasing profits through development is detrimental to the agricultural economy we laud and the way of life we cherish.

Regarding the projects currently in the county pipeline: it is time to use the word moratorium - on use-permits and on building permits - until a new vision of Napa's future is crafted in the coming year. No one wants to be the last resident to have to spend their life next to the offspring of an era of bad land use decisions.

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