Bill Hocker | May 22, 2014[This letter was sent in response the Peter Jensen's May 21th, 2014 article "St. Helena winery approved despite objections from neighbors"]
The Joint BOS/Planning Commission meeting on May 20 was potentially a milestone in the latest in a long series of battles between the profiteers and purists for the soul of Napa County. The supervisors charged the planning department with analyzing the cumulative impacts that the last couple of years of winery approvals will have on the future of the county so that commissioners would no longer be "flying blind" while trying to make decisions on new proposals.
To those of us NIMBY's who have a winery project proposed in our backyards, or who might shortly if current trends hold, it has offered hope that our voices can be now heard. Collectively we know, because we've been forced to think about it, that our backyards are the future of Napa County, and that future, we think, will be crowded. Used to being dismissed, we find that being mentioned in the same breath with "stakeholders" by the commissioners and the supervisors is, in fact, a breath of fresh air.
Yet, one day later, we return to business-as-usual with the unanimous approval of the 11th new winery by the Planning Commission in the last year. A symbolic "nay" by one of the commissioners, agreed to openly by everyone in advance, would have been a welcome sign that community concerns would be weighed during the five months or so the county has given itself to review the impacts of approved projects. The 4-to-1 approval would still have advanced the project along to its appeal with the Board of Supervisors.
Five months, however, is too long for me. Our project will probably be coming up in the next month. As will two or three new wineries or winery expansions each month for the next five months, a total of perhaps 130,000 new tourism visitation slots (and perhaps four new communities of irate NIMBY's) if the rate remains as it has.
But the rate may not remain the same. The BOS meeting has put developers on alert that things may be different by the end of the year and they'd better get their projects in right now. The planning department may have some technique to prevent spikes -- I don't know. But there is a possibility that the planning staff is going to be burdened with more work than ever just at the moment they (have) been requested to spend time analyzing the impacts of their past work.
I think that the county planners are very dedicated and hardworking. They have done their best over the last couple of years to process the projects that the planning commission was anxious to approve. Yet as was noted at the joint meeting, things have changed a lot in two years. The economy is up -- and with it the sale of high-end wines. Advertising to attract tourists has been successful. The incentive to build ever more tourist attractions as a strategy to increase sales is less pressing.
So I would re-propose a solution that was rejected at the joint meeting -- one that works to my ends, one that relieves the burden on staff so that they can have the time to really find out what these last two years of approvals mean, one that relieves commissioners from making decisions in a vacuum, and one that, IMHO, gives the county time to reconnect with the preservation of its soul. We need not use the "m" word. Let's just call it a breather.