The Lost Cause
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Bill Hocker | Jan 1, 2021

It has been almost 7 years since the letter-of-doom showed up in our mailboxes at the top of Soda Canyon Road. Someone wants to build a tourist attraction at the center of our remote, rural paradise. The letter began a crash course in Napa's land use polices, past, present and future. And in the byzantine workings of the county government. And of CEQA law and of lawyers and consultants and the meanings of "less than significant" and "mitigation" and the county's bizarre definition of "agriculture".

We are still at it on our particular project. Depending on court rulings our battle may be over soon, or it may drag on for another couple of years. But the attempt, in the many battles over the last 7 years chronicled in this blog, 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 7 years, the visual 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, of course, the traffic.

But for all that has been built up in the last 7 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. In approving the Ag Preserve Ordinance of 1968 a supervisor stated that the ordinance reflected the wish of the people "to create the environment in which they wish to live, and for future generations."

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.

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