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Napa County approves new rules to protect native trees and the watershed

Land-use controversies continue
by Kerana Todorov
April 10, 2019

The Napa County Board of Supervisors on Tuesday adopted new rules drafted to protect the watershed in the hillsides above the Napa Valley floor.

The vote came after multiple meetings during which some asked for stricter rules to protect native trees and the watershed and to combat climate change. Supporters of Measure C, the ballot measure rejected by 51 percent of the vote in June 2018, and others wanted provisions that would have offered native trees and watersheds greater protections than those approved Tuesday.

However, others called the new rules unnecessary, infringing on property rights and full of unintended consequences. Napa County until now had considered agriculture the highest and best use of the land, opponents to more regulations said. Tuesday’s vote changes that.

Representatives for both sides agreed on one point: the issue is not settled.

Measure C co-sponsor Mike Hackett said the ordinance was an incremental step in the right direction. At the same time he did not hide his disappointment. “Our basic premise was to protect the watershed and the trees on our hillsides. This particular ordinance does not do that adequately,” said Hackett, a retired airline pilot from Angwin.

Jim Wilson, co-sponsor of Measure C, did not rule out another initiative. “We’re disappointed,” he said after the vote. “All options are open.”

Stu Smith, general partner at Smith-Madrone, strongly opposed Measure C. He was against the new ordinance out of principle. Napa County’s agriculture already faced strict regulations, Smith and others said, adding the science did not back the need for new rules.

“There was no need to do this,” Smith said of the ordinance which he calls “Measure C 2.0.” Measure C was defeated at the ballot. Tuesday’s vote “subverted the will of the people,” Smith said. “I’m furious.”

What’s next is anybody’s guess,” Smith said after the vote.

There is no end in sight, he predicted, referring to the land-use controversies affecting agriculture raging in Napa County. “The battle continues ad nauseam.”

Napa County Farm Bureau led the fight against Measure C and opposed the need for the proposed ordinance, calling it “a political solution in search of a problem,” according to Napa County Farm Bureau Chief Executive Officer Ryan Klobas.

The Farm Bureau has formed a political action committee to focus on the March 2020 supervisorial election. Three supervisors are up for re-election next year: Ryan Gregory, Alfredo Pedroza and Belia Ramos.

Amber Manfree has produced a 60-page evaluation of the proposal on behalf of the Growers Vintners for Responsible Agriculture, a group whose members supported Measure C. One of her conclusions was that the provisions would leave 28,000 acres of trees unprotected under the provisions of the ordinance the Supervisors were considering Tuesday. She compared the conditions under the current regulations and the proposed new rules.

The new 70 percent canopy retention rule in the agricultural watershed area would result in a 2 percent increase in overall tree protection, Manfree said Tuesday. The 3-to-1 native tree mitigation ratio would offer a 4-percent increase in overall tree protection.

“I don’t think those are very big numbers considering the amount of energy that’s gone into this discussion as a community. Those numbers will not meaningfully slow the rate of removal of trees,” Manfree told the board Tuesday.

The report was submitted to the Board of Supervisors but was not released to the public.

Opponents to the new ordinance questioned the results, noting the report has not been made public and was not peer reviewed.

The Board of Supervisors preliminary approved the ordinance on March 26 after an all-day meeting.

Tuesday’s vote was the second and final vote. The provisions included in the adopted watershed and tree protection ordinance become effective in 30 days.

The rules include increasing native tree mitigation from 2-to-1 ratio to 3-to-1 and canopy retention, from 60 percent to 70 percent in areas around municipal reservoirs, extending the 70 percent rule to all parcels in the agricultural watershed areas in unincorporated Napa County. Tree mitigation can take place in areas steeper than 30 percent.

The ordinance also sets 50-foot setbacks in wetlands. The 50-foot setback requirement may be reduced at the recommendation of a qualified biologist.

The new rules also imposes 500-foot setbacks along municipal reservoirs Kimball and Bell Canyon reservoirs which serve Calistoga and St. Helena respectively; 200-foot setbacks along other municipal reservoirs; and a 35-foot setback along ephemeral streams.

Napa County staff reported on March 26 that five residential use permits and four winery use permits have been issued since 2004 to build houses and wineries in areas steeper than 30 percent.

That led supervisors not to impose a provision in the ordinance that would have banned most construction in areas with slopes 30 percent or steeper.

“None of us got everything we wanted,” said Napa County Supervisor Brad Wagenknecht before the vote Tuesday.

Wagenknecht said he appreciates the fact that people still are not totally satisfied. “I’ve heard that. My email and phone have been telling me that over the last couple of weeks. But I think we’ve gotten to a good spot, Wagenknecht added before proposing to approve the ordinance.

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