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Napa County Evaluates New Rules for Its Ag Watershed

Draft ordinance returns before Board of Supervisors March 26
by Kerana Todorov
March 07, 2019

Proposed new rules on hillside development in the Napa Valley have whipped up a storm of protest from some growers, vintners and property rights advocates. At the same time, environmentalists and others called the proposal common sense and sorely needed to protect the watershed.

Napa County officials for weeks have been considering new rules included in a new ordinance to limit development on hillsides 30 percent or steeper in unincorporated areas. The proposed Water Quality and Tree Protection Ordinance is being discussed less than a year after Napa County voters turned down Measure C, following a bitter campaign. Had it passed, Measure C would have restricted vineyard development by limiting the number of oak trees that could be removed.

The Napa County Board of Supervisors, who will eventually approve, reject or place on hold the Water Quality and Tree Protection Ordinance, in January forwarded the proposal to the Planning Commission for feedback. On Wednesday, March 6, the Napa County Planning Commission reviewed the proposal and sent it back to the Board of Supervisors with a number of recommended changes. The Napa County Board of Supervisors are expected to consider the matter on March 26.

If approved, the Water Quality and Tree Protection Ordinance would no longer allow property owners to apply for a use permit to develop vineyard or other projects on slopes of 30 percent or steeper. Other provisions include the creation of stream and water reservoirs buffer zones and new mitigation ratios.

The Planning Commission on Wednesday recommended that property owners still be allowed to improve access roads on slopes that are 30 percent or greater. The commissioners also said that setbacks along municipal reservoirs be 500 feet instead of 200 feet as proposed in the draft ordinance.

Other provisions in the draft Water Quality and Tree Protection Ordinance include increasing canopy preservation from 60 percent to 70 percent and the tree mitigation ratio from 2-to-1 to 3-to-1.

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Map showing Napa County's lands with slopes greater than 30 percent. Map courtesy of Napa County.


The Planning Commission on Wednesday voted to maintain the 2-to-1 tree mitigation ratio to provide flexibility as sites and projects differ from one another. The vote was 3-2.

In addition, the Planning Commission said that tree mitigation could take place in areas with slopes that are 30 percent or greater--areas deemed unbuildable.

The Planning Commission also voted to impose higher mitigation ratios when trees are planted on slopes that are 30 percent of steeper. The mitigation there should be carried out with a 3-to-1 ratio instead of a 2-to-1 ratio. The vote was 3-2.

The Napa County Board of Supervisors forwarded the draft of the Water Quality and Tree Protection Ordinance to the Planning Commission after voting for a strategic plan – a work plan for Napa County through 2022.

Critics asked the Planning Commission to place the draft on hold, questioning the science, the losses in property value and property taxes and other unintended consequences as thousands of acres would no longer be developable.

“This ordinance is a huge fraud,” said resident George Bachich. “The claim is that it’s about the environment but it’s not about the environment at all,” he said. “It’s about robbing us of our property rights and our property value under the guise of protecting the environment.”

Tom Davies, president at V. Sattui, said the ordinance is not based on scientific data. He and others urged the Planning Commission to place the ordinance on hold.

“If we truly care about our environment and the quality of our water, shouldn’t we be making informed decisions regarding our watersheds based on verifiable science data rather than rushing to get an ordinance passed solely to get political cover to our elected officials?” Davies asked. “Before we increase regulation on an already highly regulated industry, shouldn’t we be first measuring the potential for the unintended consequences of loss of plantable land and loss of land values. And finally, shouldn’t we consider long-range economic impacts of loss of jobs and tax dollars before blindly passing an ordinance”

Opponents of the draft ordinance also decried the lack of notification to property owners. However, Planning, Building and Environmental Director David Morrison said an advertisement was published in the local newspaper as required under state law. The advertisement was printed twice because the first advertisement was too small, according to state rules.

The Planning Commission had a public hearing on Feb. 20 but postponed making recommendations until Wednesday.

Stu Smith, general partner at Smith-Madrone near St. Helena, strongly opposed Measure C. On Wednesday, he protested the lack of notification to land owners affected by the ordinance. “This ordinance is the largest land grab in Napa County’s history and the most draconian,” Smith also said. Given the Hobson’s Choice between Measure C and the ordinance – most of us would take C.”

Critics of the ordinance said the proposal would prevent property owners from removing vegetation for fire protection. However, Planning, Building and Environmental Director David Morrison denied property owners would not be able to clear properties for fire protection. Cal Fire recommends removing vegetation 100 feet around structures.

Others spoke in favor the ordinance. Grower Joyce Black Sears said wells are running dry. Environmentalist Chris Malan the proposed changes are based on science and are “long overdue.”

Malan lost her house in the 2017 Atlas Peak fire. She said she is not afraid of the provisions in the ordinance, addressing critics who said the ordinance would prevent property owners from clearing their land for fire safety.

“I’m glad this is before us,” she said. “it’s common sense.”

Measure C co-author Jim Wilson addressed climate change before the Planning Commission. He supports the ordinance because it puts a break on the rate of deforestation and makes the watershed more resilient, he said during a break.

Developers are going to the hill sides because the Napa Valley floor is for the most part planted out, Wilson said. Measure C was placed on the ballot after a successful initiative. Will another initiative take place? “We’d rather not, but we are ready,” Wilson said.

Information on the draft Water Quality and Tree Protection Ordinance is available at

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