SodaCanyonRoad | Walt Ranch in Court and Beyond

Walt Ranch in Court and Beyond
Bill Hocker | May 17, 2022 on: Walt Ranch

Update 7/22/22 Coda
Sue Wagner LTE 7/22/22: Lessons from Walt Ranch project
Patricia Damery LTE 7/17/22: Questions remain about Walt Ranch decision

Update 5/17/22
NVR 5/17/22: Napa County endorses Walt Ranch greenhouse gas plan
BOS 5/17/22 hearing video

With Sup. Pedroza recused, by a vote of 4-0, the Board of Supervisors denied the appeal and swept away the last legal obstacle to the bulldozers.

Well, almost. Today's vote needs to be finalized with exact language on 7/12/22. And a conservation easement, made through an organization like the Napa County Land Trust, and an endowment to maintain it, must recorded before any land clearing operations can begin. That may take a year.

It may have just been my imagination, but it seemed that 3 of the 4 supervisors would rather have voted to halt the project. The realization comes many years too late. "If we had known then what we know today..." Sup. Dillon lamented at the last meeting. Of course many people knew then that this project was going to be an environmental black eye for a county nominally committed to preservation, even before fires depleted much of the county's sequestered carbon and the groundwater began to run dry; and they said so at every hearing for the last 8 years. Could the supes or staff have short-circuited the project if there was a will? The Hall's attorney, citing the length of this process and a recent, much more protracted, CEQA decision in Marin, ominously summed up with a quote implying that the 1st District Court now frowns on the use of CEQA as an instrument of oppression and delay, implying, one assumes, that the county will be sued if it prolongs the approval process further.

The notion of future development was brought up again. Sup. Ramos made a last ditch effort to broach parcel mergers as a way to encourage future conservation. Dir. Morrison, always anxious to derail the image of the vineyard estate mansions that will eventually sprout on the very visible hillsides, quickly intoned the disclaimer that "Future development is speculative. Staff would not recommend taking measures regarding that." Future development is, of course, what makes this absurdly costly 200-acre vineyard worth doing.

Update 5/13/22
On 5/17/22 the BOS will again consider the appeal by the Center for Biological Diversity of a mitigation measure for the removal of 14,000 trees from the project area. See item 13D on the agenda.

Since the last hearing a 30' non-development zone (dark blue on the map) has been added to the edges of some of the vineyard blocks to address concerns raised by CBD, raising the number of protected areas in the mitigation from 248 to 267.7 acres. There is a suggestion that somehow the atomized acreage designated for protection (dark green on the map) has been consolidated to provide more continuity of protected areas. While a few of those areas may be large enough to be developed, the many, many small isolated patches, most less than an acre in size, surrounded by areas protected because their slope exceeds 30% (light blue on the map), are not realistically under threat of development. The First District Appellate Court cited in its decision, referencing a precedence in a Cap and Trade case, that "carbon sequestration from permanent conservation constitutes an offset only if the forest conserved was under a significant threat of conversion". These small patches of trees surrounded by un-developable land are not under a significant threat of development and should not be considered as a mitigation. The notes below still apply.

Update 4/19/22
NVR 4/19/22: Napa County wants more time on new Walt Ranch GHG plan

Gary Woodruff LTE 4/19/22: Napa County regulators need to do a better job protecting the land

The continuance was desperate measure in a futile effort to cobble some legitimacy to their decision. But no amount of "consolidation" of the hundreds of micro parcels in the conservation easement will solve the fact that this mitigation, much like the tree planting, will ever compensate for even a quarter of the lost carbon stored in the trees and their roots.

The $960k settlement to the Halls in St. Helena must loom over the Board of Supervisors as this approval is being deliberated. It is quite possible that a majority of the board now thinks that, in a time of climate crisis, and the need to reduce GHGs and to protect water resources in a drying world, that the development of 2300 acres of virgin Napa county woodland for wine grapes (and potential vineyard estates) is no longer something they individually or the county can be proud of. The project was begun in a period in which the county promoted anything that fitted the expansive wine industry definition of "agriculture", even something as audacious and objectionable as Walt Ranch. This decision is being stretched out, IMO, in a desperate search for a late term denial to prevent the bulldozers from moving in. As the St. Helena settlement shows, the Halls will take punitive action to enforce their ambition, and in this case it will be substantially more than $1 mil that county residents and visitors will end up paying in one way or another.

Update 4/18/22
NV2050 Eyes on Napa 4/18/22: Walt Ranch: An Important Vote - Do No Harm!
Iris Barrie LTE 4/17/22: Land use decision of upmost importance when dealing with climate crisis (NVFB LTE)
Sue Wagner LTE 4/16/22: Walt Ranch project bad for the environment
Laurie Claudon (G/VfRA) LTE 4/14/22: Action needs to be taken now to stem further climate change damage

Update 4/13/22
On 4/19/22 the BOS will be reconsidering the appeal of the Walt Ranch GHG mitigation plan preliminarily denied on 12/14/22 but then derailed before a final sign-off by conflict-of-interest allegations against Sup. Pedroza. In the meantime the developer has proposed, and the staff accepted, a change in the mitigation under appeal. While the mitigation proposed on 12/14/22 involved 124 acres in conserved woodland and the planting and maintenance of 16790 seedlings to replace the 27496 tons of GHG's emitted in the destruction of 14000 mature trees, the new mitigation merely sets aside 248 acres of otherwise developable woodland in a conservation easement with no replacement planting.

Incredibly, this mitigation does nothing to compensate for the tons of GHG emissions the project will create. It only insures that a small percentage of the property will not add to that GHG emission in some unspecified and unforeseeable project in future. In looking at the proposed map, it is fairly obvious that the areas identified are simply a computer algorithm designed to fabricate conservation matches rather than an effort to find meaningful areas of conservation that might otherwise be developed. It is also fairly obvious that many of the designated areas, surrounded by un-developable land, are highly unlikely to be developed in any case because they are too fragmented, small or inaccessible to be considered for vineyard blocks (or as winery and estate sites). The white areas on the plan, not defined in the index, are presumably where future development can occur. The conservation areas do little to prevent future GHG emitting development outside the atomized 248 acres. This proposal makes no sense as a replacement for a plan that attempted to offset emissions with new plantings, however deficient that offset would have been.

I am trying to understand the court decision that led to the 12/14/22 BOS appeal. Given the legalese and double negative expressions, the decisions are a bit difficult to follow.

The 1st District Appellate Court, in upholding the GHG part of the appeal and sending it back to the Superior Court seems to downplay the notion that preserving existing trees are a mitigation for the removed trees unless those existing trees are "under a significant threat of conversion":

    "Here, the EIR does not identify the location of the woodland acres that it commits
    to preserve. The property itself is undeveloped, but over 40 percent of the property is not developable under local regulations. As we previously concluded herein, future development on the property is not a reasonably foreseeable consequence of the project. On this record, CBD has demonstrated a lack of substantial evidence supporting the inference that the trees to be permanently conserved would not reasonably have remained on the property. CBD has accordingly satisfied its burden of showing that substantial evidence does not support the EIR’s conclusion that the project would have a less-than-significant GHG emission impact."

Is the designation of conservation areas evidence of a foreseeable threat? My (albeit layman's and biased) interpretation of this conclusion is that, given that future development is not a foreseeable consequence of the project, and that there is no substantial evidence that additional trees in a 'business-as-usual scenario" would be "under a significant threat of conversion", their permanent protection would not be considered a mitigation of the project's GHG emissions. Unless, of course, a foreseeable threat is specified to particular areas that could then be protected as a mitigation. At this point, the designation of 248 acres that can be cleared in a future project if not protected seems little more than a fabricated threat intended to thwart any need for actual GHG mitigation in the current project.

A question still to be answered is why the County proposed an elaborate tree planting program to offset the GHG loss in the 12/14/21 hearing, when the Superior Court judge already suggested the much simpler248 acre solution (that does nothing to offset the loss).

Update 2/2/22
Nancy Tamerisk LTE 2/2/22: 'The stench of corruption is the air'
Phil Burton LTE 2/5/22: Shame on our county supervisors

Update 12/15/21
NVR 12/15/21: Napa County backs Walt Ranch mitigation plan
Nadean Bissiri LTE 1/20/22: Who do our county supervisors serve?

In a vote by the BOS on 12/14/21 that was perhaps better than anticipated, the supes split their decision on the Walt Ranch mitigation, with the 3 pro-development members of the board backing the mitigation plan, but the 2 preservation members holding firm and voting to turn it down. The fact that those two are not running for re-election in 2022 might have made it a bit easier to vote in the best environmental interest of Napa County and its residents rather than the financial interest of major campaign contributors. Hopefully the split decision will encourage the appellants to return to court for the judge's opinion on the mitigation.

Walt Ranch will be the most expensive 200 acres of vineyard ever developed in Napa County. 15 years of consultant costs, government fees, legal battles, 21 miles of all weather road, a community reservoir and water system delivering water to every one of the 35 properties on its 2300 acres. But, of course, this is not a vineyard project. It is an estate subdivision with the potential to turn over each legal parcel for much more than its value as a vineyard, as the developer has done before. It is, in fact, an end run around Napa's token attempt to promote "agriculture" over urban development by building the infrastructure needed to develop a housing project in the name of agricultural necessity. It is of a piece with the county defining winery tourism as agriculture to insure that the money to made from urban development by both developers and the county can proceed apace under a legal framework that is nominally intended to preserve agriculture in the face of urbanization.

Update 12/10/21 Appeal of PBES decision
On 12/14/21 at 2:00pm the BOS will hear an appeal by the Center for Biological Diversity of the court-mandated revised greenhouse gas mitigation plan that has been approved by PBES for the Walt Ranch project. The agenda and documents for the hearing are on pg. 15 here. The proposed mitigation calls for the planting of 16,790 new trees (to replace the 14,000 mature trees that will cut down for vines), but also allows for a reduction to 124 acres in the permanent conservation easement originally required to be 248 acres. The staff agenda letter is here. The Center for Biological Diversity argues that no detailed plan for the implementation of the new mitigation measures has been prepared, and thus there is no way to evaluate the potential success of the mitigation. They also challenge assumptions made about the success rate for re-plantings.

NV2050 Eyes on Napa about Dec 14th protest rally
Comment letters on the PBES decision
Elaine de Man LTE: Alfredo Pedroza and Walt Ranch
Walt Ranch Documents
PBES greenhouse mitigation decision
NV2050: Sue Wagner on the appeal hearing
NV2050 Walt Ranch page
NV2050 on the appeal hearing
Wagner, Hirayama LTE 11/30/21: To all Napa County residents concerned about climate change
Ross Middlemiss LTE 11/4/21: Supervisors’ final call on Walt Ranch will be lasting
NVR 10/26/21: Walt Ranch greenhouse gas decision appealed
CBD press release 10/25/21: Appeal Challenges Weak Climate Plan for Harmful Napa Vineyard Project

Update 10/5/21 PBES decision
County Decision to approve greenhouse gas mitigation
County Walt Ranch Documents
Public Comments
The decision can be appealed to the BOS.

NVR 9/23/21: Napa County ready to approve Walt Ranch greenhouse gas plan
WineBusiness 9/24/21: Walt Ranch Nears Approval as Halls Submit Greenhouse Gas Emissions Mitigation Plan
NVR 7/20/20: Napa County questions how Walt Ranch vineyards will mitigate greenhouse gases

Update 10/1/19 Court decision
NVR 10/1/19: Court says Napa County's Walt Ranch vineyard project needs more work
The court denied several appeal petitions, but the project was remanded to the County to reconsider how greenhouse gas emissions caused by the project were to be mitigated.

Living Rivers Council et al vs. County of Napa et al (court decision and disposition)
"We affirm the judgments denying the petitions for writ of mandate as to Circle Oaks and LRC. We reverse the judgment denying CBD’s petition for a writ of mandate, and we remand the CBD matter to the trial court to grant the petition as to the following EIR issue: to ensure that the GHG emissions associated with the Project, as mitigated, constitute a less-than-significant impact, as set forth in Section II.F of this opinion. In all other respects, we affirm the judgment as to CBD. The parties shall bear their own costs on appeal."

Update 2/14/18
On Feb. 13th the Circle Oaks County Water District and CO Homeowner's Assoc, the Center for Biological Diversity and the Sierra Club, and the Living Rivers Council began presenting their CEQA lawsuit against the County for approving the Walt Ranch development. After testimony from attorneys for the Living Rivers Council the Circle Oaks Water District, the hearing was continued to March 1st, 2018. Prior to the hearing, the Judge in the case had already issued a tentative ruling in favor of the County.

Text of Tentative ruling by Judge Warriner prior to the hearing(gone)
NVR 2/13/18: Tentative court ruling sides with Napa County and Walt Ranch
Sue Wagner's notes from the hearing

NVR 1/21/17: Walt Ranch approvals head to court