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Napa Soda Springs
The ruins after the fire
Nov 8, 2022
859 acres of development potential
“It still has the ruins. It’s where we’ll build a guest house and residences and a winery...We’ll build an experience the world has never seen.”
-- developer Gary Friedman channeling Donald Trump
In 2022, the 859 acre Napa Soda Springs property and the ruins of the resort that flourished here at the turn of the 20th century, was purchased by Bay Area-based RH, formerly Restoration Hardware, a high-end home furnishings retailer that has moved into food with the inclusion of restaurants in their stores. Now, with this purchase, their foray into hospitality is being expanded to include events, lodging and wine making. The corporate entity of the project is called "1990 Soda Canyon Road LLC".
The sad news of the sale to a tourism developer (this was a major land-trust-worthy property) comes at exactly the same time that residents of Soda Canyon Road joyously learned the Mountain Peak Winery project they've opposed for the last nine years was to be abandoned and its contested use permit, issued in 2017, to be revoked. The timing is fortuitous: the decks have been cleared.
The impacts of this project will be even greater than Mountain Peak, the developer more sophisticated, the amounts of money for consultants, studies and litigation higher, the promised fees, taxes and campaign contributions to grease the review process more lucretive - and the existential threat to peaceful rural life on Soda Canyon Road exponentially more damaging. Just its physical size on the Napa landscape perhaps suggests a pushback comparable to that of Walt Ranch. Will that happen? Stay tuned.
The Soda Springs Resort property is located in a Fire Hazard Severity Zone (FHSZ) in the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection's (Cal Fire's) State Responsibility Area (SRA), ie the areas of the state in which Cal Fire is the lead firefighting agency. It also means that development is governed by the State Minimum Fire Safe Regulations (MFSR) enacted by Cal Fire's Board of Forestry (BOF). Beginning in late 2019, following major destructive wildfires in the state, the BOF began a review of their regulations to see what could be improved. The review process was preceded by a decision by the State Attorney General's office earilier in 2019 to deny the EIR for the Paraiso Springs Resort development in Monterey County. That project was to be located on an existing long dead-end road. The Attorney General concluded that the EIR failed to mitigate the fact that the existing road did not comply with the BOF regulations regarding width or length of a dead end road. Monterey County had contended that the BOF regulations should only apply to new roads, not existing ones. The Attorney General's office disagreed in their comment letter while reviewing the EIR, and the BOF review of its MFSR began.
A year and a half of marked up changes to the MFSR were proposed involving input from all stakeholders (local governments, developers, and private citizens). The process is documented here. At the end of the process the BOF apparently decided that their original regulations were for the most part adequate, but it was the process of enforcement of those regulations that was lax, leaving too much of that enforcement to local governments whose priority was to enable development rather than prevent wildfire catastrophe. The approval of the regulations as modified in 2021 was upheld. The major change to come out of the review was in how active the BOF would become in reviewing projects in the SRA.
The Napa Springs Resort project may become a test to see how far the BOF will go in enforcing their regulations. Napa County is in the process of presenting their "interpretation" of the BOF regs to the Board of Supervisors and the public. They are relying on a 2016 certification of Napa County's Road and Street Standards (RSS) by the BOF. The certification meant that the RSS complied or exceeded the BOF standards. The certification was re-approved in 2019 before the State began to review their regulations. A major change to come out of the review was that the State would no longer certify local standards. It would now be up to local jurisdictions to prove that BOF standards were being complied with on each individual project.
The current RSS explicitly state that existing roads are exempt of the provisions of the RSS. The County is relying on the certification to allow that provision to remain in effect. But the Attorney General specifically rejected that interpretation of the BOF regs in the Paradiso Springs EIR. They concluded that the EIR failed to mitigate for the length of the dead-end road that exceeded BOF standards and that, indeed, there was no mitigation that would provide the "same practical effect" as a shorter road. Existing dead-end roads can not be exempted from BOF regulations.
But even more recently, when Sonoma County tried to have their local road standards certified by the BOF in 2020, the BOF rejected that certification on the basis that Sonoma's road standards, just like Napa's, exempted existing roads. Deborah Eppstein, who led the fight in Sonoma County against the certification, has just now sent a letter to the Napa County rebutting their effort to claim that existing roads are exempt.
Which brings us to Napa Soda Springs, 3 miles up Soda Canyon Road in a Fire Hazard Severity Zone. At this point it is total conjecture what will happen as the Napa Soda Springs projects progresses. To our knowledge, nothing beyond a zoning review in March 2022 between the county and the previous owner has transpired. But intuitively there must have been a more substantial informal commitment by the County that the project could proceed in order for the new owner, with development ambitions, to buy the property. The future of this project very much depends on how well the County can convince the State that their own RSS should supersede the BOF regs when the two are in conflict, as is the case over whether the BOF regs apply to existing roads.
“We just closed on 856 acres in the Napa Valley,” [developer] Friedman said. “It’s probably the most beautiful property in all of Napa. We own that.” ... “We’ll build an experience the world has never seen.” (channeling the bombast of the former huckster-in-chief).
As feared, the concept of turning Soda Canyon into a major Napa tourist attraction is being sanctioned by the county and promoted by local media. No doubt the realtors selling the property will cite the County's encouragement in their search for the right developer or plutocrat wishing to bring a couple hundred thousand more visitors each year, and a 100 more employees each day, into the county and up Soda Canyon Road.
I have not called too much attention on this site to the Napa Soda Springs ruins on Soda Canyon Road out of respect for the owner who has tried to keep a low profile to avoid incursions on to the property. But now the owner wants to sell and articles about the property are all over.
The Napa Soda Springs property is significant to those of us on Soda Canyon Road because, given its legacy use, it can probably still be developed as a resort, dooming Soda Canyon Road residents to life as a tourist attraction. In addition to the resort there is the potential for several vineyard estates and their potential wineries. It is disconcerting to see such an enchanted piece of land discussed in the sales babble of real estate agents: "A future owner will have an opportunity to customize the parcel sizes and locations to match their visions and creative stewardship." It is referred to as a "sanctuary opportunity" which seems to be realty-speak for a high-end gated estate property development (or maybe a Trump tax dodge investment). For certain, any development of the Soda Springs property will engender some resistance from those residents that have spent the last 6 years trying to defend their rural community against the commercial development of the road.
But there are greater issues about the sale of major pieces of Napa's landscape than just our local concerns. The two listings, Soda Springs and Green Valley Ranch, come in the wake of two similar sized properties being sold to the Napa and Sonoma County Land Trusts:
These two purchases, adding to the numerous lands in the county under conservation protections, promise that more of the natural beauty of Napa County will be enjoyed by future generations.
I suppose that there is always the danger of having too much of Napa's beautiful landscape being preserved for the enjoyment of future generations - but I doubt it. The Soda Springs and Green Valley properties are major opportunities to add to that heritage, and as the realtors emphasize, such large parcels don't come up very often. The Soda Springs property is significant because of its historical heritage ruins and because it touches the large Meade Ranch conservation area shown on the Land Trust map. The Green Valley Ranch property is very significant given its connection to the Tuteur Ranch conservation easement and the potential for a connection to Skyline Wilderness Park and the proposed Bay Area Ridge Trail.
Protecting these two properties from commercial development might provide some compensation for the sad loss of 2300 acres of pristine Napa county woodland to the Walt Ranch estate development project. Such major undeveloped properties still remaining in the county should not be allowed to pass into developers' hands without some significant consideration to their value as protected natural heritage for future generations. Hopefully, the Land Trust, and all public and private groups interested in the conservation of Napa's natural heritage, will have their eyes on this property as well.