Bill Hocker | May 19, 2021Update 5/19/21 Benjamin Ranch
Agenda and documents
Video of hearing
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?
The total number of visitation slots added to the to the county each year after the 6 approvals (see the final figures below in this post) thus amounted to roughly 203,000. The number of additional visitor slots added for other winery approvals, not including those 6, between Sept of last year and now is 116,000. The winery approval list is here.
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.
NVR 9/19/20: Napa County balks at amplified music request by St. Helena winery
NVR 9/23/20: Nickel and Nickel winery will restore its farmstead history
NVR 9/17/20: Proposed 475,000-gallon Napa Valley winery raises size concerns
The 9/16/20 PC meeting video is here
The Planning Commission has completed its review of 6 wineries in the last month. The most controversial of them was continued to a date uncertain (the Commission's polite kiss of death). The other 5 were approved unanimously and added 150,000 more winery visits per year to the county.
The controversial one, the 475,000 Benjamin Ranch Winery ran into pre-CEQA-appeal resistance from neighbor Michael Honig
and pushback from the one industry group that seems to be taking on the unlimited growth agenda of the wine&tourism industrial complex, the Growers/Vintners for Responsible Agriculture
. (More on the G/VRA here
.) Both opposition and support for the project was made by other well known names. It also ran into a planning commission unwilling to pass at one sitting a new mega event center in the heart of the valley.
The developer, Hollywood mogul Rich Frank, is expanding the wine empire he established with the purchase of Larkmead Winery
in 1993. The initial ask on Benjamin was for 146,000 visitors/yr but the ask was dropped prior to the hearing to about 87,000/yr
in the hopes of pushing the project through - to no avail. Like some other entrepreneurs in the valley, the Franks expressed their frustration with a bureaucratic process that stands in the way of such entrepreneurial spirit.
The 9/16/20 meeting
of the County Planning Commission will be reviewing use permit requests from 3 more wineries. Together, the 3 will be asking for almost 198,000 more visitor slots/yr, with the bulk, 146,000/yr for one new winery in the heart of the valley. (A continuance has been asked for.) If all are approved, it would be a significant 1 day increase in the wine tourism industry in Napa County. In the last two Planning Commission meetings a total of about 68,000 more visitor slots/yr have been approved to add to the tourism load, potentially adding 260,000 more winery visits/yr in 1 month of approvals.
NVR 9/7/20: Napa County approves more visitors for 2 wineries
The 8/19/20 Planning Commission Meeting
The first of the projects, a Saintsbury Winery request for 36,000 more visitors/yr was approved by the Planning Commission on 8/19/20
after horse-trading brought the number down to about 24,000 more vis/yr. (NVR article
) After his vote to bring more tourism into the county, during a workshop on winery comparison charts later in the day, Comm. Whitmer made a somewhat stirring exortation of Planning Commission purpose:
"A major focus about how we implement the entitlements, particularly how they relate to things like accessory uses [winery tourism], I am still hung up on the idea that 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. Because we've got a really fragile agricultural industry. A lot of people would look at it and say, wow, this is a tremendous thing, and everybody we know wants a piece of it. But its fragile. And we have the potential if we go too far, to kill the goose that's laying the golden egg. And one of the biggest challenges I think for the planning department and for this commission and for the board is to try and balance those issues of allowing for economically viable and sustainable businesses while not creating an environment that changes the bucolic nature here, that speaks to the beauty thats exists here, the fundamental agrarian and agricultural base that we have."
Bravo! ... But then, perhaps looking out at the wine industry lobbyist in the audience, he deflated his own lofty rhetoric:
"So part of the sustainability model is economic viability, and I don't want to gloss over that, that's important in this discussion. We're hearing from wineries that these uses are important to them for the economic vitality of their businesses. So its clear we need to be focused on that as well."
A few minutes later, that lobbyist, Michelle Benvenuto of the cliquish Winergrowers, got up to remind the Commisssion who they worked for:
"We appreciate you guys bringing the item
[the revision of winery comparison charts] forward for discussion and, as has been noted, it has evolved over time into a more formal table -- but with limited input from stakeholders, the public, or the board. There were no stakeholder meetings, all discussion has been in a formal session. The Board of Supervisors has consistently agreed that this is a tool and not intended to be definitive. Commissioners familiar with APAC know that there is a Proposal X that was a metric that the Board of Supervisors chose not to proceed with. Additionally the staff report notes that "this item is not intended to solicit input related to changes in policy" yet no mention as to what that policy is. The Board has made clear as recently as your joint meeting, that each winery needed to be judged on its own individual merits and decided on a case by case basis. Attempting to create a document that is more definitive or, in layman terms, more black and white would be change in policy. The process is discretionary and the commission must use their discretion in making decisions."
My interpretation of her statement is that important decisions in Napa County [policy decisions] are made by the moneyed interests [stakeholders] behind closed doors directly with the supervisors [stakeholder meetings] and not debated in public [formal session] at the PC level. As everywhere, unfortunately, public policy is crafted by businesses to promote their own economic interests.
The referenced APAC hearings
, begun in an effort to address citizen concerns over winery proliferation, is good example. The public APAC committee came up with a list of recommendations which tried to incorporate public concerns, although still watered down by the large majority of "stakeholder" representatives on the committee. The Planning Commission, in their public review of the recommendations again restored some citizen concerns into the recommendations. But eventually the Supervisors, perhaps after some "stakeholder meetings", "honed" (I would say eviscerated) the recommendations in their final actions
. The result was to create a policy that allowed wineries to legalize and expand their previously illegal activities. Another policy created a fast track policy for the approval of smaller wineries. Nothing was done to limit winery development or the continuing tourism urbanization that results. The resulting policies only made winery proliferation easier.
(Similar stakeholder meetings, following the 2008 meltdown, led to 2010 "clarifications" of the 1990 WDO to allow food service and non-wine-related events at wineries, vastly expanding their use for tourism. Considering them "changes" in WDO policy would have involved a much more public process.)
The resistance to creating any "black and white" policies that seek to control future development, the original intent of convening the APAC Commission, is a bugaboo for the wine industry that knows they will be more successful in getting what they want without clear cut development rules. And what they want is more tourism development.
The Mabray presentation
The planning commission meeting of 8/19/20 was quite remarkable. The first item on the agenda was a presentation by Paul Mabray, the online wine sales evangelist
. His message is that a marketing strategy that attempts to sell wine through tourism is ultimately a futile and environmentally unfriendly business model and that wineries, in the internet era, must become more effective at moving their goods though online sales rather than brick-and-mortar (literally for some wineries!) outlets -- just like the rest of the world's economy.
As Dir. Morrison later pointed out, the previous Mabray presentation to the commission happened 6 years ago, just at the beginning of winery development becoming a more controversial topic. He hoped this presentation would not be a harbinger or omen of more to come. Paul Mabray is proposing a solution, in Comm. Whitmer's words, "allowing for economically viable and sustainable businesses while not creating an environment that changes the bucolic nature here." Is the County or the wine industry listening any more now than they were 6 years ago? (More on Paul Mabray here
Coming to the Planning Commission
At the Napa County Planning Commission In the month between Aug 19 and Sep 16, 2020
, 5 winery expansions and one new winery are requesting use permit approvals. Together they are seeking to add 286,000 visitor slots per year, and 137 more employees. By my calculations:
|Project||Add'l visitors/yr||Add'l Emp'ees|| |
|Saintsbury Winery||30,795 (23,900 aprvd)||9||approved|
|Hyde Winery||39,700 (23,660 aprvd)||5||approved|
|Ballentine Winery||22,835 (20-21,000 aprvd)||5||approved|
|Bengamin Ranch Winery||146,000(reduced to 87,000)||61||continued (approved 5/19/21)|
|Nickel & Nickel Winery||46,000||46||approved|
If approved, eventually a cascade of urban development will be needed to accommodate the new people that make those projects profitable. More hotels, more houses, more restaurants and commercial areas, wider roads, enlarged sewers and more water.
There are dozens of new or expanded wineries
behind these 6 projects, awaiting their day at the Planning Commission. The laborious PC hearings (and BOS appeals of the PC decisions) have done little in the last 6 years to change the trajectory of approvals and their eventual impacts on us all. There are marginal reductions in visitation, moderation of requested visiting hours, notifications required for events. The effort to exercise planning oversight, in staff, applicant and citizen time and money, is disproportionate to the actual impact on development. It is the figleaf of due diligence, nibbling at the edges, while allowing the urban development to continue as it would unscrutinized.
The Lost Cause
The attempt over the last 6 years to keep Napa from becoming the Las Vegas of wine has probably failed. For the concerned citizens that have shown up at Planning Commission and Board of Supervisors meetings, and have funded and presented costly project appeals, and have protested and signed petitions and written letters and worked to elect officials and pass initiatives all aimed at slowing ongoing urbanization in a county nominally committed to rural preservation, it is too little too late. It has been like filling sandbags to protect against a tsunami of development lust washing into the County wanting to fill up the open space and cash in on the rural heritage left by 50 years of preservation policy.
In that 6 years, the changes have been noticeable but not overwhelming. A few more wineries occupying the vineyards, more buildings poking out of ridgelines. A few more bare patches in the forested hillsides for vineyard estates. More noticeable are the warehouses taking over the southern wetlands and acres of vineyards taking over the southern rolling oak woodlands; the urban areas beginning to fill up with apartment buildings and shopping centers; downtowns increasingly ceded to a transient population; the increasing loss of affordable housing and local businesses when the tourist dollar sets the price of everything; and the traffic.
But for all that has been built up in the last 6 years, the real end of Napa as a rural place is in the projects approved, or in the pipeline, yet to be realized. Perhaps 100 new winery-event centers. 3000 hotel rooms. 4000 housing units. 4 million sf of commercial space. Coming soon.
At one point in the history of Napa County, the interests of residents and the "wine industry" coincided; the growers and wine makers that built the industry were also residents with a committment to the place they wanted to live. The policies on agricultrual protection from that generation of leaders are what Comm. Whitmer referred to in his comments. But as the industry has become an economic powerhouse it has moved to corporate and plutocratic ownership with less interest in a preservation ethic that stands in the way of economic expansion and increased profits. As perhaps with every other local government on earth, Napa County now protects the economic interests of developers over the quality-of-life interests of its residents. Residents now look in vain to the hollow rhetoric of the Napa County General Plan enacted by that previous generation to preserve " the agricultural lands and rural character that we treasure." The concept of the Ag Preserve, as becomes more apparent with each new building project approved by the Planning Commission, is history.