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Here's How Big Wine Gets To Avoid Environmental Rules in Napa

Vineyards in Napa County occupy almost ten percent of the county's total land cover. | Photo: James Faulkner, some rights reserved
Vineyards in Napa County occupy almost ten percent of the county's total land cover. | Photo: James Faulkner, some rights reserved

In 2006, Napa County officials issued a permit for The Caves at Soda Canyon, a new winery in the hills east of the city of Napa. As most such project permits do, the document set strict limits on how the developer could build his winery.

But The Caves’ owner Ryan Waugh allegedly ignored some of these limitations. Waugh dug an unpermitted cave into a mountain, and hosted guests at unapproved ridgetop tasting patios. After county officials became aware of the violations, they ordered Waugh in 2014 to block off (but not fill in) the illegal cave, stop the unauthorized wine tastings and muffle a noisy generator.

Neighbors had complained about the generator’s din, claiming that Waugh had promised years earlier to connect his facility to silent power lines. They’re primarily concerned, however, about the winery’s impacts on local traffic and congestion.

County documents report that Waugh followed through on all orders to correct the violations (something neighbors, who say they can still hear the generator, dispute). Then, Waugh submitted a request for a modification to his permit, and in April, the Napa County Planning Commission voted to approve it. The new permit brings the unauthorized components of his operation into full legal compliance while also increasing The Cave’s annual production limit from 30,000 gallons of wine to 60,000. The decision is a win for Waugh, who has reportedly put his winery on the market for $12.5 million.

Neighbors say that laws don’t apply to people invested in Napa County’s influential wine industry.

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“You can just drill an unpermitted cave and have unpermitted tastings, and just get retroactive approval from the county, and get more allowed production than you initially had,” says Anthony Arger, who lives nearby. Arger is concerned that The Caves’ enhanced use permits will lead to a dangerous increase in vehicle use on Soda Canyon Road.  

The county’s decision to clear Waugh’s record while allowing him to enlarge his business illuminates what Arger and other community activists say is part of a countywide problem. They argue that Napa County officials, especially those in the Planning, Building and Environmental Services department, collude with the wine industry, ignoring violations of local rules, to increase wine production and tourist visits at the expense of the environment and local residents’ health and safety.

Generous campaign contributions from winery and vineyard owners may influence how county officials govern the wine industry. In 2015 and 2016, of $477,025 donated to the campaigns of three current Napa County supervisors – Alfredo Pedroza, Belia Ramos and Ryan Gregory – 87 percent of the money came from wineries and business interests. Wineries which have proposed projects pending, like The Caves and nearby Mountain Peak Winery, donated about $10,000 of the total.   

Personal financial conflicts of interest may also be problematic. For instance, Napa County Planning Commissioner Michael Basayne, who voted to approve the new permit for The Caves, also works for Platypus Wine Tours, a luxury transport company whose website lists The Caves at Soda Canyon as a favored day trip destination.

“Every approval he makes [of a winery permit] is benefitting his own business,” says Geoff Ellsworth, a city council member in the small Napa Valley town of Saint Helena.

Basayne says this isn’t true.

“I am a salaried employee with no ownership interest in Platypus Tours,” he explains in an email. He adds that the wineries visited by Platypus Wine Tours do not in any way compensate Basayne or influence his decisions.

“I am mindful of conflicts of interest, and I believe I am able to cast my votes objectively and without bias,” Basayne says.

More on wineries

Ellsworth says retroactive permit upgrades of the sort granted to Waugh at The Caves happen all the time in Napa County and, collectively, are undermining the entire system of regulating development projects and mitigating their environmental impacts.

“They just give [the project applicant] a new permit that encompasses any violations and brings the project into compliance,” Ellsworth says.

A few miles north of Soda Canyon, Bremer Family Winery has generated strife between grassroots activists, county staff and the winery’s owners, who have allegedly violated their 2013 project permit on multiple counts. Kellie Anderson, who lives in the nearby town of Angwin, and Herman Froeb, who lives next door to the winery, have claimed in reports to the planning department that John and Laura Bremer destroyed a small creek, illegally removed trees and ignored setback rules that specify how close grapevines may be planted to a stream. Last summer, when trucks carried in loads of dirt to be laid as soil on the Bremers’ new vineyard, video footage Anderson shot with her phone showed that the heaps of dusty earth weren’t covered with tarps. (Tarping is required to limit air pollution from blown dust.) A retaining wall that was supposed to be five feet high ended up being 12 feet high. Anderson, who has closely watched almost every detail of the work, says the higher wall creates a landslide risk.

After the county pointed out some of these violations to the Bremers last June, the pair submitted a new and updated permit. Brian Bordona, the supervising planner with the Planning, Building and Environmental Services department, said in April that his office was considering approving the Bremers’ modified plan.

Scott Greenwood-Meinert, an attorney representing the Bremers and who spoke on their behalf, objects to claims that his clients have been inconsiderate neighbors or that their permit violations are even violations, per se. He says the Bremers’ have made what would more accurately be called “in-field changes” to the original plans.

“It’s common practice [to make in-field changes],” says Greenwood-Meinert, who is also representing Ryan Waugh as he fights a legal challenge to The Caves. “Many projects do this. You have the original plan, and then there is the plan you end up with.”

Anderson, who once worked for a local vineyard development company, has hounded county officials about permit violations on numerous projects that she has personally inspected. According to Anderson, vineyard managers frequently install drainage systems incorrectly, fail to plant required cover crops to control erosion, incorrectly place deer fences in a way that prevents free passage of smaller wildlife, and use pesticides illegally. She says erosion control measures often fail to work, causing loose sediment to wash into creeks. There it can smother gravel beds used by spawning salmon and steelhead, which have almost vanished from North Bay watersheds. Many biologists have pointed to vineyards as a leading cause of the fish declines. Multiple phone calls and an email to the supervising code enforcement officer, David Giudice, were not returned.

Anderson feels county planners and the Board of Supervisors are failing to protect public interests for the benefit of those who grow grapes and make wine.

Recreational drugs and the environment

“There has been a complete erosion of the office as a responsible caretaker of the people and the resources into something that caters to the next billionaire who wants to come here and build a party venue,” Anderson says.

Bordona says the planning department abides by the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA), which requires projects to mitigate significant environmental impacts. In theory, CEQA ensures that no development project – like a new vineyard – does unnecessary harm to natural resources. However, critics say CEQA mitigations are often too flimsy. For example, a developer may be allowed to cut down a grove of adult trees if he or she scatters some sprouted seeds or acorns over another part of the property, ostensibly cancelling out the loss of the adult trees that will take decades to replace even if the seeds survive their first few years. Forests serve as critical carbon sponges and are increasingly being figured into global climate change mitigation plans; cutting them down doesn’t help the state meet its ambitious climate mitigation goals.

Even if CEQA mitigations always worked as intended, says Ellsworth, the process of rewriting permits to clear violations retroactively seriously compromises the effectiveness of the law.

“If you suddenly have twice the visitors to a winery, now you have two times the drunk drivers and two times the air pollution,” Ellsworth says.

Rarely, he adds, are required mitigation efforts implemented with an original permit scaled up to match the upgraded permit.

“So that means the mitigations initially agreed on won’t be enough anymore,” Ellsworth says.

The Caves is just one of two projects that have Soda Canyon Road residents lashing out. The other, the proposed Mountain Peak Winery, was approved by the Board of Supervisors in May. The developers, who plan to open a tasting venue, estimate that their facility would attract some 14,000 visitors and generate approximately 40,000 additional car trips on Soda Canyon Road per year.

Soda Canyon is already a dangerous mountain road, and has not been repaved since the 1980s. Records from county and state agencies show that reported traffic incidents on Soda Canyon Road surge during times of year when vineyard seasonal employment peaks.

“It correlates perfectly,” says Arger, who feels officials are now turning a blind eye to obvious safety hazards. 

Officials, including Senator Bill Dodd, of Napa, county supervisor Alfredo Pedroza and planning commissioner Terry Scott, have acknowledged in written statements the deteriorating condition of Soda Canyon Road. So has the California Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control, which called this narrow, dead-end ribbon of asphalt a “problematic roadway” in a 1999 decision to reject a proposal to expand a winery. 

Arger himself comes from the wine industry, and his family has owned vineyards in the county for decades. He says he is not opposed to the industry. 

Aerial photo of Napa vineyards | Photo: Pierre LeSage, some rights reserved
Vineyards dominate the Napa flatlands so heavily that any new development would displace hillside woodlands.  | Photo: Pierre LeSage, some rights reserved

“We are part of it and just want to see reasonable, sustainable growth,” says Arger, who is acting as the attorney on a legal appeal of the decision. He is serving in the same capacity on the appeal of The Caves’ approved permit modification.

Others within the local wine industry contest the complaints of people like Anderson, Arger and Ellsworth. Chuck Wagner, owner of Caymus Vineyards, says his industry provides a variety of public benefits that critics tend to overlook, such as fire protection. He says that by partially fragmenting forested zones with vines, grape growers make devastating wildfires less of a threat.

David Keller | Photo: courtesy David Keller
It's not just Napa. According to David Keller of Friends of the Eel River, wineries in Sonoma are taking an even greater toll on streams and fisheries. | Photo: courtesy David Keller

“Vineyards planted in the hills are fantastic fire breaks,” he says.

He also says vineyards checkerboarding much of the North Bay have helped keep development at bay, ultimately protecting the region’s bucolic qualities. (But Anderson says it was specific ballot measures approved by voters many years ago that have kept hillsides free of homes. “There isn’t a fucking thing the wine industry had to do with stopping development,” she says.)

Wagner says he is sometimes perplexed by the arguments from industry critics. The two opposing sides, he says, actually want the “the same endpoint.”

“Preserving agriculture, reducing traffic and air pollution, conserving water, maintaining our bucolic ambiance, and reducing danger of fire are all shared concerns,” Wagner says. “Where do we become separated? What is the problem in a nutshell?”

One particular focal point of the environmentalist camp has been the preservation of native habitat, especially the region’s iconic oak woodlands. It was, for instance, public outcry – plus several lawsuits – that recently stopped a county-approved proposal by Walt Wines to cut down 14,000 trees and plant roughly 200 acres more vineyards east of Napa. Last summer, local environmentalists collected some 6,000 signatures from county residents as part of an effort to place a woodland-watershed protection initiative on the November 2016 ballot.

There appeared to be a real chance the measure, which would have roughly tripled the distance that farmers must leave between their vines and stream banks, would become law. However, the Water, Forest and Oak Woodland Protection Initiative never made it to the ballot. Napa County registrar of voters John Tuteur killed the initiative on an unusual technicality. The problem, county officers had determined, is that the language presented to voters during the signature collection process included footnotes to source documents but not their full text.

Parcel map of upper Soda Canyon Road | Map: Amber Manfree
On this parcel map of upper Soda Canyon Road in Napa, current and future vineyards are indicated by greenhatching. | Map: Amber Manfree
Aerial of upper Soda Canyon Road | Image: Google Maps
This is what the green crosshatching on the previous map means on the ground: fragmentation of native oak woodland habitat. Aerial of upper Soda Canyon Road | Image: Google Maps

Mike Hackett, an author of the initiative, believes his bill was singled out. He says other bills that reached the November ballot had been petitioned in the preliminary stages in the same way his bill had – without appendix documents on hand for viewing by signatories.

“But [the county] didn’t have a problem with those bills,” he said. The wine industry had formally opposed the watershed protection initiative.

Anderson insists political influence from those who produce wine has steered the outcome of lawmaking.

“The county is scared shitless of this wine industry,” she says.

The issues alleged to be so problematic in Napa County seem to occur elsewhere. At least one supervisor in neighboring Sonoma County, another nucleus of wine production, “has been bought by the wine industry,” according to David Keller, Bay Area director of the group Friends of the Eel River. Keller says impacts of grape growing on streams and fish have been worse in Sonoma County than in Napa, and he says the county government cannot be relied upon to effectively force state and federal laws protecting resources.

Napa County’s wine industry began to boom between 30 and 40 years ago. Grapevine acreage has grown from about 12,000 in 1970 to more than 45,000 acres today, and county officials have estimated that 10,000 acres more could be planted by 2030. According to David Morrison, the director of Napa County’s Planning, Building and Environmental Services department, about 500 acres of Napa County’s undeveloped land is converted into vineyards each year. He says 80,000 of the roughly 400,000 undeveloped acres in the county have soil types suitable for vineyards.

Since little undeveloped space remains on the Napa Valley floor, most of this projected vineyard growth will probably occur in the forested hills to the east and west of the valley floor. This, environmentalists have warned, means thousands of acres of trees will almost certainly be cut down to make way for vines.

Adina Merenlander | Photo: UC Berkeley
Biologist Adina Merenlander says winery development is fragmenting habitat for wildlife.  | Photo: UC Berkeley

Adina Merenlender, a conservation biologist with U.C. Berkeley, has been studying northern California vineyards’ environmental impacts for more than 20 years. She says the conversion of shrub, oak and conifer habitat into new vineyards is fragmenting wildlife habitat, thinning out forests, and, through erosion caused by agriculture, destroying the stream habitat where imperiled salmon and steelhead trout spawn. She says slender migration corridors of native habitat connecting the forests of Napa County to broader wilderness areas to the north, in Lake and Mendocino counties, will become ecologically dysfunctional if they continue to be compressed by vineyard expansion.

“We’re down to the final pinchpoints,” Merenlender says. She notes that even bats and birds, though they can fly, may avoid passing over areas where tree cover has been replaced by grapevines and other forms of agriculture and development.

“We absolutely have to stop native habitat removal in California,” she says. “It has to end.”

Merenlender echoes the concerns of community activists in Napa County, who don’t trust county agencies to effectively manage the wine industry.

“The county is naturally interested in the economic well-being of their residents,” Merenlender says. State officials, she believes, must take over management and protection of resources.  “The state needs to step in,” she says. “You cannot count on the government to protect natural resources with a 3-2 county vote on a Tuesday morning.”

Banner: Grapevines in Napa | Photo: Alex Merwin, some rights reserved

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