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James and Heidi Barrett File Lawsuits Over Napa County Helicopter Ban

by Kerana Todorov
October 15, 2018

Two Calistoga winemakers filed a lawsuit against Napa County over a measure that bans helicopters from landing in vineyards and other private properties, alleging it is vague and unlawful.

James and Heidi Barrett on Oct. 5 filed suit in federal court alleging the measure the voters passed in June violates their constitutional rights as citizens under the 14th Amendment.

The measure, known as “Measure D” passed with about 61 percent of the vote, according to Napa County’s Election Division.

The Barretts also filed a complaint in Napa County Superior Court over the same issue, saying provisions of the Napa County ordinance are vague and should not be enforced.

The Barretts own and manage Barrett and Barrett Vineyards LP; Chateau Montelena; La Sirena and other vineyards in Napa County. They are members of “Helicopters for Agriculture,” according to court filings. The group is listed as a plaintiff along with the Barretts in Napa County and in U.S. District Court.

Court documents describe “Helicopters for Agriculture” as “an unincorporated nonprofit association” whose membership includes vineyard owners and managers, viticulture consultants, pilots and “individuals opposed to the unnecessary or unlawful regulatory constraints on the use of helicopters or other aircraft for agricultural purposes.”

The group is “committed to the removal of state and local regulatory barriers to the use of helicopters for agricultural operations, including vineyard and farm management,” according to the federal complaint.

Federal records indicate a 2007 R44 II rotorcraft by Robinson Helicopter Co. is registered to James Barrett in Calistoga.

The Barretts said in court documents that they use a helicopter to manage their or their clients’ vineyards in Napa, Sonoma, Mendocino, El Dorado, Amador, San Joaquin and Lake counties.

Stopping or limiting the use of a helicopter “would result in significant economic injury to their businesses, including their ability effectively to manage their own vineyards and to provide consulting services to other vineyards,” according to the complaints.

Measure D was placed on the ballot after a successful initiative campaign.

The Barretts’ lawsuit note a Napa County analysis of the initiative before the election concluded the proposal contained “’a number of legal flaws which might engender litigation if (the initiative) were enacted,’” according to the state and federal court filings.

The resulting county ordinance “restricts the circumstances under which helicopters may be used on off-field for agriculture purposes,” according to the complaints. Activities such as aerial spraying and frost protection are restricted “to situations where (a) they are used ‘’solely in support of direct aerial agricultural activities; (b) they do not transport persons ‘other than those that are essential to the conduct of such aerial activities’ and they (c) are ‘unavoidable,’” according to the complaints.

The helicopter operator also has to submit a written report within 48 hours to Napa County which includes a statement on why the takeoff and landing were “unavoidable.”

The Barretts argued in their complaints a number of points, including that it is vague, violates their constitutional rights and should be declared unlawful, according to the complaints. The provisions of the ordinance regarding the operations of aircraft “who may lawfully occupy an aircraft are preempted by federal law,” according to the federal complaint.

Violations of the ordinance carry civil penalty of up to $1,000 per day and/or a criminal penalty of up to six months in jail, according to the court filings.

As of last Thursday, no one had been found in violation of the ordinance, according to Napa County. One individual reported multiple agriculture flights, according to the county.

Landings are regulated by local rules while flight activities are under the purview of the Federal Aviation Administration.

“A decision to ban helicopters from landing on certain sites would be a matter for local authorities,” FAA representative Ian Gregor said in an email Thursday.

“Under some circumstances, people have to notify the FAA if they want to establish a heliport so the FAA can study the effects the proposed heliport would have on existing or planned traffic patterns of neighboring airports. But a blanket decision to prohibit heliport construction would be a local issue,” Gregor said.

The initiative was launched after vintner Christian Palmaz tried to obtain a permit to build a helipad and a hangar on the family ranch east of Napa. Palmaz flies his Bell Helicopter from Napa County airport, about 10 miles from the ranch. The application raised a storm of protest from neighbors and others.

The Palmaz family’s campaign to defeat the measure failed in June, according to campaign finance reports and county election results. The Napa County Planning Commission did not approve the Palmaz helipad and hangar project; a vote on the subsequent appeal before the Napa County Board of Supervisors was postponed until after the election. The matter has not returned before the board.

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