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Benjamin Ranch Winery
About 9+ acres of Rutherford Dust will be paved over for the project.
Nov 16, 2021
"...the major focus of our county and this commission should be on agricultural preservation, and I mean growing of crops, and to the extent that we don't consider ag preservation as kind of a lead in these discussions, it's troubling."
-- County Planning Comm. Dave Whitmer, 2021
Neighbors of the Benjamin Ranch Winery proposal on Napa's renowned Rutherford Bench have thrown down the gauntlet with a website devoted to their opposition to the project, following in the footsteps of opponents to Angwin housing, Yountville Hill, Woolls Ranch, Walt Ranch, Syar and Mountain Peak. The project needs to be opposed.
The numbers in production and especially in tourism will impact the entire county and more public involvement needs to be brought to the process than has hitherto taken place.
87,300 sf of building area
94 parking spaces
9± acres of Rutherford Dust lost
The project represents the largest increase in production capacity in the Ag Preserve since who knows when, and the largest visitation increase since the Carevan Serai benchmark in 2011. It will also be one of the largest single conversions of the Ag Preserve land into hard-scape.
Update 6/2/22In perhaps a first, an approved project under appeal at the Board of Supervisors is being voluntarily remanded back to the Planning Commission with the consent of all concerned. From the BOS 6/7/22 agenda:
"(CONTINUED FROM NOVEMBER 16, 2021 AND MARCH 8, 2022; STAFF, THE APPLICANT AND APPELLANT REQUEST A REMAND TO THE PLANNING COMMISSION)"
"Staff, Appellant and Applicant jointly request a remand to the Commission for purposes of preparation of an advisory report addressing: 1) changes proposed by the Applicant to the winery’s design and operational characteristics; (2) consideration of the new BAAQMD Air Quality and GHG Guidelines that took effect in April 2022; and (3) consideration of the Governor’s recent Executive Order pertaining to well permits and the extreme drought. The Commission’s advisory report will be considered by the Board prior to rendering a decision on the appeal. Upon issuance of the Commission’s advisory report, the appeal hearing will be publicly noticed at least fifteen days in advance of the hearing before the Board.
It seems there will be a public Commission hearing to air all concerns on the new design, but that the PC (perhaps to their relief) won't actually vote on the revised design. It's an odd tweak to the normal course of things, which, along with a look at how new state regulations will impact all winery approvals going forward, will make for an interesting process.
After being continued last Nov., the Benjamin Ranch Winery appeal will apparently be heard by the BOS on 6/7/22, although no notice has yet been sent by the County.
The new owner, Treasury Wine Estates, is proposing a reduction in visitation and production output in a letter to the BOS: 87,150 vis/yr down to 37,000, and 475,000 gal/yr down to 300,000.
No mention is made of downsizing the physical facility proportional to the reduction, or of the 61 employees needed to operate it. While it may be that a smaller operation is closer to Treasury's vision, it has become almost routine that developers come in at the last minute with a reduction in visitation to make approval more palatable, while doing nothing to reduce the physical size of the project. Will the 9 acres of arable land removed remain the same? Requesting changes in visitation or output capacity in the future becomes a much easier lift when the physical capacity is there to accommodate it.
The project is being opposed by the community group Keep Rutherford Rural, led by Micheal Honig. They are asking for an EIR on the project (as is now required for Mountain Peak). A request for a continuation would not be a surprise given the changes to consider.
Even with the reductions, this will probably be the largest new winery in the Ag Preserve in two decades. It has become incumbent upon the BOS, in an era already experiencing water shortages in the Napa Valley sub-basin, already experiencing the disastrous effects of climate change that are the product of continuing urban expansion, to be much more diligent in vetting the impacts of new development than they have been in the past. A negative declaration of environmental impact by county staff is not enough. An EIR should be required for all new projects and expansions in the County, and doubly so for a project of this scale.
There is a case to be made that to survive the climate catastrophe humanity faces, all GHG-producing development should be put on hold until a solution is found. A more thorough vetting of the impacts of each development should be the very least that our civic leaders do to show due diligence in confronting the environmental Armageddon that lies ahead.
What to make of this surprise? Negotiations for the sale of the property were obviously happening at the same time as the the project was coming up before the Planning Commission, if not before. So much for testimonials of character witnesses at planning commission hearings.
What does it mean for the Benjamin Ranch Winery? Treasury already has ±760,000 visitor slots/yr and ±8 million gal/yr of capacity in its better-known Beaulieu, Beringer, Stirling and Etude Wineries. Another Napa brand may be an added profit source, but spending $20+ million on another venue to add a bit more capacity or a few more tourists to its Napa holdings could be a questionable investment. No mention of physical expansion, only brand addition, in the press release. Will the appeal still be contested in March? Stay tuned.
What it does show is the ongoing absorption of Napa brands under large corporate ownership, and the further erosion of any "local" authenticity to the Napa name as the industry continues to move toward a wine-themed Las Vegas named "NAPA!". Most buyers won't know or care that a wine and its glitzy winery are owned by an Australian Corporation. But oenophiles will probably see it as a bit more tarnish on the Napa brand and continue to seek their cult discoveries elsewhere.
8/27/21Neighbors are appealing the approval of the Benjamin Ranch Winery by the planning commission last May. The appeal will be heard by the Board of Supervisors on 9/14/21 [now continued to 11/16/21]. Notice of Appeal Hearing Appeal Document (from KRR website)
It would seem that all of the submissions to the administrative record needed for the Benjamin Ranch appeal were made in the first of the two Planning Commission hearings and that further presentation at the second was seen as unnecessary.
Given the Board's pro-development makeup (see how dismissively the Board treated the resident-farmers surrounding the Scarlett Winery), opponents of the Benjamin Ranch Winery must also be anticipating an appeal loss and, hopefully, already preparing their CEQA litigation.
Will this be the project that finally convinces the "responsible" but silent resident growers and vintners of Napa County that their way of life is also threatened by the tourism expansion that much of the wine industry and the county government have embraced, a conviction long felt by the rural residents not tied to the wine-tourism economy? Probably not.
In any case, much like global warming, it is a bit late to undo the urban development trajectory undertaken in the county over the last 20 years. The hundreds of approved, as-yet-unbuilt projects will continue to bring more workers and tourists needing ever more housing, infrastructure, commercial and hospitality development. Urbanization, like global warming, is a cyclical process with each individual event amplifying the occurrence of future events.
Which is not to negate the obligation that each individual community has to resist the urban development that threatens the quiet and peaceful enjoyment of their neighborhood.
[Letter sent to the BOS for the 10/16/21 Benjamin Ranch appeal hearing which was continued at the last minute]
Nov 11, 2021
Geographer Amber Manfree has recently produced a map (not done for this project) showing building projects on Ag Preserve lands since 1993. I have reproduced a screenshot of her Google Earth interactive map with the Benjamin Ranch development area overlayed.
The intent here is not to show that the project is larger than other recent building projects, (although at 10 acres of development area it is one of the largest), but to show that as you continue to approve building development in the Ag Preserve you are creating exactly the situation that your predecessors were concerned about in crafting the legislation to protect an agricultural economy from urbanization. It is also a concern often heard in your public discussions, somewhat ingenuously I must say, while you continue to approve building projects now.
From the findings of the Winery Definition Ordinance, 1990:
"(e) Napa County is one of the smallest counties in California and within the County areas suitable for quality vineyards are limited and irreplaceable. Any project that directly or indirectly results in the removal of existing or potential vineyard land from use depletes the inventory of such land forever.
(f) The cumulative effect of such projects if far greater than the sum of individual projects. The interspersing of non-agricultural structures and activities throughout agricultural areas in excess of what already exists will result in a significant increase in the problems and costs of maintaining vineyards and discourage the continued use of the land for agricultural purposes."
From the findings of Measure J, Agricultural Lands Preservation Initiative, 1990:
"Uncontrolled urban encroachment into agricultural and watershed areas will impair agriculture and threaten the public health, safety and welfare by causing increased traffic congestion, associated air pollution and potentially serious water problems, such as pollution, depletion and sedimentation of available water resources."
From the vision statement of the Napa General Plan, 2008:
"While other Bay Area counties have experienced unprecedented development and urban infrastructure expansion over the last four decades, Napa County's citizens have conscientiously preserved the agricultural lands and rural character that we treasure."
From Supervisor Alfredo Pedroza, 2016:
"Once our open space is gone, it's gone."
The appellants of the Benjamin Ranch Winery approval are asking that the project be evaluated with a full Environmental Impact Report. That is the least you should require. It is curious that every vineyard conversion in the county over 100 acres routinely requires an EIR to assess its impacts. But for a winery that would theoreticaly need an additional 700 acres of vines to fill its tanks (or those of the wineries that will lose production to this facility), while paving over some 10 acres of the best vineyard land in the county, a neg dec from the planning department is deemed sufficient. It is not.
The total scale of this project, 475,000 gal/yr, 86,000 visitors/yr, 61 new employees, and all of the traffic, service, resource and accommmodation impacts throughout the county that such quantities present, has not happened in the Ag Preserve in the last decade, if not much longer. A more thorough airing of its impacts and the trajectory of building development on the valley floor that it represents and portends, with a full EIR, is the least you can responsibly do in this case.
But you should do more. It is beyond time for you to realistically consider the impacts of a building project on every 10+ acre parcel allowed under current zoning. It is well beyond time for you to begin to live up to the lofty words quoted above and stop the urbanization that threatens the rural character, resources, community harmony and long term survival of agriculture and open space in Napa County.
This particular project is on some of the most valuable arable land in the world. Preserve it. Don't pave it over as some ritual sacrifice to "economic growth." Napa can easily remain a successful economy if it maintains the natural resources necessary for great wines. It doesn't need more tourist attractions.
Please, stop pandering to a tourism industry or donor class whose only interest is in the profit or conceit to be had from a building on each and every allowable parcel in the county. Start listening to neighbors and residents, many also members of the wine industry, whose interest is in maintaining the rural environment that makes Napa a desirable place to live and a viable place to grow crops in the urban Bay Area.
You have a responsibility to previous public servants and citizens who, over the last fifty years, have resisted a tidal wave of development pressure in protecting the agricultural lands and open space that still remain. Deny this project while considering the dozens if not hundreds of projects that might come after it, and work to end the ongoing urbanization of Napa County. You owe it to your predecessors, to your constituents and to posterity.
The Planning Commission approved the Benjamin Ranch Winery on 5/19/21 to complete the approval of the 6 wineries that came up last fall. The developer had dropped the visitation numbers from 154,000/yr to 87,000/yr even before the project was continued in Sept. The vote here was 3-2 with Comms. Cottrell and Joelle opposed. Given the opposition to the project at the first hearing including from activist organizatons, significant wine industry names with lawyers, CEQA letters and peer traffic reports, it was a bit odd that the project had so little opposition in this hearing. Only two individual neighbors spoke. Where did that opposition go? What gives?
One interesting public comment made in support of the project was from a friend of Mr. Frank, who traveled the world a lot, and wanted to support Napa Valley wherever he could. He said "I will say to you that one of our biggest challenges going forward is to repolish the brand that we all call Napa Valley. We need to take that challenge very very seriously." I haven't heard compliants about the quality of Napa wines. Perhaps the bottle price. Or perhaps the cost of staying and eating here. Or the traffic to be endured getting here. There is much that should be done to polish the brand, but I'm not sure how the 87,000 more visitors a year, and the traffic they will add, will do it. In fact, the last thing needed now is another mega-tourist attraction hoping to turn Napa into a wine-themed Branson or Las Vegas. Perhaps the tarnish the speaker felt while trying to boost the Valley in his world travels, was the transition the world knows as "napafication": the process of draining a wine region of its authenticity by turning it into a tourist attraction. One more ride in the amusement park won't help.