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Judge Rules Napa County Violated No California Environmental Laws In Approving Walt Ranch

Preparations to Develop the Vineyard Continue
by Kerana Todorov
March 12, 2018

A judge has ruled Napa County violated no California environmental laws when it approved a hillside vineyard development east of Napa.

Environmentalist groups and a subdivision filed the lawsuits in January 2017, about a month after Napa County approved the development of 209 acres of vineyard on Walt Ranch. Craig and Kathryn Hall, owners of Hall Wines in St. Helena, have owned the 2,300-acre property for more than a decade.

The plaintiffs, who argued their case in separate lawsuits, included Living Rivers Council and the Center for Biological Diversity, two environmental groups, as well as Circle Oaks County Water District, a water district serving a subdivision adjacent to the Walt Ranch.

Napa County Superior Court Judge Thomas Warriner rejected the plaintiffs’ claims, including that the environmental impact report is deficient in analyzing and mitigating the impacts of the development on groundwater, endangered species protected under the Endangered Species Act or the effects or airborne drifts of pesticides.

Warriner’s decision, signed March 2, was filed Thursday, about a month after the judge wrote a tentative ruling against the plaintiffs. Warriner signed the decision a day after hearing final arguments on the case.

“We are disappointed with the Court’s decision and disagree with the Court’s findings in its ruling,” said Anna Prabhala, an attorney for the Center for Biological Diversity. “We remain concerned with the project’s substantial environmental harms and are considering potential next steps, including appealing the ruling,” said Prabhala, who also represented the Sierra Club in this case.

Hall Wines president Mike Reynolds was pleased with the judge’s decision. “We are grateful and thankful for the decision from the court. We think that is a reflection of the extensive work coming from Napa County over the last decade to analyze and mitigate any possible impact from the project,” Reynolds said via email Friday.

In the meantime, preparations to develop the vineyard continue. “We are continuing to prepare for the vineyard, as we have before, by implementing the extensive protections and mitigations incorporated in the County approval to protect and enhance the conditions on the property. These include road improvements, improvements in streambed crossings, monitoring programs, and conservative easements to protect sensitive species. This process is ongoing,” Reynolds said.

The Walt Ranch project was approved after a series of contentious hearings.

Napa Vision 2050, an environmental group, last year led a signature campaign to place an oak woodlands and watershed protection initiative on the June 5 ballot. It is now known as Measure C.

A similar initiative failed to make the November 2016 ballot on a technicality.

Members of Napa Vision 2050 have kept a close eye on the lawsuits filed over the Walt Ranch project.

Jim Wilson, a Capell Valley resident and a Napa Vision 2050 leader, said the judge’s decision is “no surprise,” given his tentative ruling.

The groups against the project may appeal, he said. “We’re going to get together and decide that,” Wilson said.

The Sacramento firm Remy Moose Manley represented Napa County, with the Halls paying legal expenses other costs under an indemnity agreement. How much has been spent so far is unclear. Napa County is “not privy to how much has been charged by Remy Moose Manley in legal fees to represent and defend the Halls in this matter. That is a private matter between that law firm and the Halls,” Napa County spokeswoman Kristi Jourdan wrote in an email.

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