SodaCanyonRoad | The Caves at Soda Canyon: recognize, allow, increase, sell

The Caves at Soda Canyon: recognize, allow, increase, sell

Bill Hocker | May 7, 2017 on: The Caves at Soda Canyon

Update 10/26/19:
This post needs an update. The property remains under the same ownership and the proposed sale in 2017 seems to have been a short-lived effort.

Update 5/7/17:
It has been a bit over two weeks since The Caves at Soda Canyon was granted a permit modification for an additional 30,000 gal/yr, the use of its bootlegged portal and terrace, exceptions to allow its perilous driveway, allowed use of the ridgeline for entertaining, and the continued operation of a diesel generator to power the entire operation. The winery with its new expanded use-permit was immediately put up for sale. How much did the approval by the planning commissioners add to the $12,500,000 asking price? How profitable is the forgiveness-not-permission attitude on the part of the county?

This project has been a blemish on the county process at each stage: a winery approved on a totally inappropriate site, substantial aggravation of neighbors subjected to generator power, bootlegged construction, forgiveness of transgressions coupled with expanded production and marketing areas. And now sale of the property before the ink is dry on the expanded use permit.

Perhaps this is another example of the winery-glut sell-off that Ross Workman points out here. Perhaps it had to do with the loss of future Stagecoach grape contracts after the purchase by Gallo. Perhaps the owner got tired of battling with the residents of Soda Canyon Road. More than likely, the revenues were not being sustained by a tourism venue in such a remote location. Unfortunately for us, should someone be willing to buy the property, they will have expansions of their own to pursue and the battle will begin anew

It will be interesting to see what impact the proposed sale will have on the appeal hearing for the project - and what impact the impending appeal will have on the sale. No doubt real estate agents will point out that the Supervisors never approve citizen's appeals.

Update 4/20/17:
NVR 4/20/17: Amid drama, Napa planners approve changes to Soda Canyon winery

In a 3-1 Commission vote (with some drama over Comm. Scott's temporary indecision about his vote), The Caves at Soda Canyon will be allowed to expand its production from 30 to 60,000 gal/yr, continue to operate under generator power, build a cover over its crush pad and host marketing events on the ridgeline and the bootlegged patio.

In the director's report before the hearing, Dir. Morrison indicated that more winery projects (15) have been approved this year than in the whole of 2016. Add one more. The development boom continues.

Napa Custom Crush, aka The Caves at Soda Canyon, is requesting a Major Modification to its 2006 use permit to increase allowed processing capacity from 30,000 to 60,000 gallons/year. The request also includes the installation of a previous approved wastewater treatment system to handle the increased water usage and a permanent canopy over the chushpad, in addition to the "recognize-and-allow" approval of the bootlegged patio and cave portal, and an exception to the county's road and street standards for the perilous driveway. An Addendum has been added to the original 2006 Mitigated Neg Dec that discusses the impacts of the modifications.

The project goes up before the Planning Commission on Apr 19th, 2017.
The staff agenda letter is here
The meeting agenda with project documents is here

This project should never have been built in this location. It is an agricultural processing facility on a remote piece of property with no agriculture, no power source, up a steep driveway unsuited to the movement of trucks or busses. It was placed in this location solely to provide a view for tourism activities.

The winery predates the 2010 WDO guidance that asks you to consider the "remoteness of location" and "access constraints" in reviewing use permit proposals. Possibly this project spurred the need for such guidence. Hopefully the requested expansion will be viewed in light of it.

This application seeks road exceptions for a driveway too narrow and curvy to meet county standards. It has grades up to 17%. Trucks get stuck on it now, as they will even with improvements. Buses bringing people to its large marketing events will suffer the same fate. The Soda Canyon grade up to the Rector plateau is only 11% - yet we can show examples of buses and trucks becoming stuck there now.

Truck stuck on Caves driveway

Bus stuck on Soda Canyon grade

But a better indication of the road is given in this anecdotal description of the access from a Yelp customer:

    The location is a feat to see! The wines were good and the view of the surrounding landscape was magnificent. Public service announcement: don't drink and drive; there's a higher likelihood you will meet a fiery death, Wile E. Coyote style, after driving off a steep embankment on the windy road that leads to this venue.

The access road is inappropriate now and will be more so with a doubling of production capacity: twice as many grape deliveries, barrel and bottle deliveries, case shipments. But will it eventually be just a doubling? The project application states:

    The member families of Napa Custom Crush LLC currently have more grapes produced at their properties and contracts on other parcels on Soda Canyon Road than can be processed at the winery under the current 30,000 gallon capacity.

The concept seems to be that as the members continue to expand their supply, (or potentially as the number of members continue to expand) the capacity of this remote winery, difficult to access, without power, will continue to expand to accommodate them. This was not a proper location for a winery in the first place, and it is not a proper location for a wine factory serving the needs of vineyards throughout the county now. If the members are successful will there be a future request for expansion of the facility using the same rational. What are the limits? If Napa Custom Crush wishes to expand its custom crush operations, now is is time to move to an industrial location more appropriate to continued expansion.

A majority of the residents on Soda Canyon Road have already petitioned the county to protect their community from expanding commercial development on the road. Each new building project and expansion increases the threat to the "agricultural lands and the rural character we treasure" envisioned in the General Plan and diminishes the remote, rural quality of life that is our reason to be here. And each approval will also increase the discontent toward a county government always willing to sacrifice the concerns of residents to the desires of entrepreneurs. That discontent has led to resident pushback throughout the county these last two years. Lacking a rebalance of interests, the discontent will continue.

This winery is obviously here to stay. I will probably be condemned by some for a forgivness-not-permission and whatever-exceptions-it-takes approach to land use planning, but there are things in this application that will make the project better and safer with few impacts. Permit the road improvements. Permit the wastewater system. Permit the awning. And only after a clean and silent power supply is in place and the generator is gone - permit the bootlegged portal and patio.

But don't permit the expanded capacity. In that metric you have wide discretion and you should use it. Make clear that this winery, on this very inappropriate site, should live within the capacity and visitation conditions of its original use permit, in perpetuity, or be moved elsewhere.

Bill Hocker - Apr 17, 2017 1:52PM

Update 4/17/17: I have received an email from a neighbor of the project indicating that the issue of the diesel generator noise and pollution has not been addressed (the county indicated in the staff report that this issue was resolved with sound attenuation blankets and that "Staff has not received any noise complaints since the case was resolved."), and that the operation and expansion of any building project with such an environmentally unfriendly power supply should be the main issue discussed by the Planning Commission. I would tend to agree.