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Napa's Bremer Winery Granted Exceptions for Structures Built Without Permits

by Kerana Todorov
October 18, 2019
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Two pedestrian bridges over a creek at Bremer Family Winery in in Napa County were among the out-of-compliance issues discussed Wednesday before the Napa County Planning Commission. The discussion stemmed from a settlement agreement with county officials. Photo courtesy of Napa County.

A winery above the Napa Valley floor will not have to remove a barn, a restroom, rock walls, two pedestrian bridges built without proper permits within the stream setback of a creek that runs through the property.

The Napa County Planning Commission on Wednesday granted the use permit to Bremer Family Winery. The winery is trying to resolve code violations on its Deer Park property as part of a settlement agreement with Napa County. Owners John and Laura Bremer in February settled a lawsuit Napa County filed in 2017. The vote was 3-2.

The Bremers, who bought the property in 2002, in agreed to pay $271,464 to Napa County for a number of code and permit violations, including the number of visitors the winery could host, under the terms of the settlement agreement filed in Napa County Superior Court. The Bremers, who settled the court case without admitting guilt, also agreed to either seek permits or level structures that are out of compliance with county code. The Bremers’ permit for the 1891 winery dates from 1979.

Wednesday’s hearing focused on the issue of the non-conforming structures along the creek. State water officials in 2016 sent a notice of violation to the Bremers for allegedly placing fill in the tributary. The Bremers have to improve about 400 feet downstream to resolve that issue, according to Napa County staff.

David Gilbreth, a Napa attorney who represents the Bremers, urged the commission to grant the use permit as part of the settlement agreement. Pulling the rocks and taking out the railings which are there for safety, he said, would be “absurd.” Other non-conforming structures in dispute have been grand-fathered in.

“We have John and Laura, who are in good faith, the County, in good faith, trying to deal with a pre-existing development that is very old,” Gilbreth said.

One of the Bremer’s experts argued that no adverse impacts to the tributary on the property or biological resources have occurred.

But others disagreed. Next-door neighbor and winemaker Herman Froeb was among those who strongly objected to granting the Bremers permits to remediate past violations. There are bears, deer and panthers, he said, countering a Bremer wildlife expert who said there was no significant wildlife.

“They have not been good neighbors to me,” Froeb said. “When they first dug their cave, their dust machine dumped dirt on my property and I can’t tell you how many times I called over there to ask them to stop dumping dirt on me after 5 o’clock. They wouldn’t shut it down,” he said.

The Bremers met their goals by settling the case and paying Napa County’s legal fees, which he said, appears to be “purchased privilege.”

The public hearing scheduled this week was continued in September to give the public time to study the issues. Mike Hackett, an environmental activist from nearby Angwin, said Gilbreth invited him after the September hearing. He declined. When Hackett said he later asked for permission to visit the site with an expert, Gilbreth refused. “What are they hiding?” Hackett said.

“Are we going to penalize them? Or are we going to reward them?” Hackett said. “I think it’s very important that you set a precedent for future violators.”

Two members of the Planning Commission, Chairwoman Joelle Gallagher and Commissioner Anne Cottrell, voted against granting the use permit.

The settlement agreement, they said, assumes the Planning Commission would approve the application.
Gallagher said the settlement agreement did not contemplate a Planning Commission denial. That meant it was a “foregone conclusion” that the Planning Commission would approve the application. “And while I don’t agree at all that anything should be removed because, of course, that would be detrimental to the environment, I don’t really agree with the process” Gallagher said.

Cottrell also said demolishing the structures does not make sense. She applauded Gilbreth’s efforts to work with Napa County officials and voiced support for staff’s step-by-step approach. ”But I just feel there’s too many details hanging over our review of this application for me to support it at this time,” Cottrell said.

In the end the majority of the planning commissioners were comfortable approving the use permit citing the limited scope of Wednesday’s request to resolve the compliance issue. ”I hope no one – and I mean no one – construes the action that’s taken today as a message to the community that compliance with county codes and policies is optional,” Commissioner Dave Whitmer said. “Because that’s absolutely not the case.”


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