Use permit denials in Napa Valley
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George Caloyannidis | May 11, 2024

I feel compelled to address misguided statements made at public hearings and in the press by owners whose new winery applications were recently disapproved by the Board of Supervisors and the Planning Commission.

Applicants have been arguing that in spite of having been through an admittedly arduous and expensive process, “followed all the rules and checked all the boxes,” and even received a favorable staff recommendation, their applications were not ultimately approved. Such denials, they say, spell the demise of agriculture in the Napa Valley. The logical conclusion of this reasoning is that public input, hearings and the role of these government bodies is meaningless. What they fail to realize is that Use Permits are discretionary and for good reason.

The primary responsibility of those government bodies is to safeguard the health and welfare of its citizens. It is impossible to codify in boxes the tremendous complexity of what this entails. This is why we rely on the judgment of these bodies and the experiences and wisdom of the citizens to assess the cumulative benefits and risks of applications beyond what is in the “boxes.”

There is an inherent risk to all development applications and not exclusively to wineries as the industry portrays it. I have been on this side of the equation on large housing projects in Southern California. You win some and you lose some. Still, wineries and housing continue to be developed. And just because applicants provide “expert” studies and testimony, does not necessarily mean that they are right.

I can cite many cases where they have been wrong to the detriment of the public. One which comes to mind is the “sustainable” Carneros Resort, when in 2001 its water experts checked the box of its wells producing enough water to support its operation. The neighbors had provided evidence that many of their wells were running dry during summer months, but they were dismissed. We know what happened. In 2018, the city of Napa agreed to supply the resort with 11 to 14 million gallons of its own citizens’ water annually to help keep the resort open.

I recall then-Supervisor Brad Wagenknecht saying, “Maybe in the future, we ought to listen more carefully to what neighbors are saying rather than blindly relying on experts.” It takes the collective input of many experiences and points of view to get it right.

Fascinating read: James Surowiecki, "The Wisdom of Crowds," 2021

NVR Version 5/11/24: Use permit denials in Napa Valley

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