Contentious Measure C: Is There a Right to Change Ag in Napa Valley?
By Dawn Dolan
To the outside, the escalation of the argument between the proponents of and those against the Napa County Watershed and Oak Woodland Protection Initiative, better known as Measure C, the initiative to amend the Napa County General Plan and Zoning Code, appears to have reached a red alert level with record speed. In fact, this has been a festering sore ready to break open for the past few years. Dividing lines are drawn fairly clearly: agriculture is against. The Napa County Farm Bureau stands with other agricultural entities, represented by The Coalition for Sustainable Agriculture (protectnapa.com).
For the past fifty years, Napa has had a unique place in agricultural history. The California Land Conservation Act of 1965 (commonly referred to as the Williamson Act) paved the way. “The Act enables Napa County to enter into contracts with private landowners for the purpose of restricting specific parcels to agricultural use,” states the County of Napa website. Napa went further, creating in 1968 the first Agricultural Preserve in the nation, protecting Napa’s land for primarily agricultural use, of which nine percent is currently planted to wine grapes. According to the Napa Valley Vintners website, this land-zoning ordinance established rules for agricultural and open space use for this fertile valley. Originally protecting 23,000 acres, it today encompasses a little over 32,000 acres of Napa.
Bringing forward iterations of the initiative over the past few years, the authors of Measure C forced the hand of the supervisors, according to even neutral entities. Ryan Klobas, Policy Director for the Napa County Farm Bureau, says they have gone over this initiative “with a fine-tooth comb.” He expressed concern that the 9111 report states that there will be the potential multiple lawsuits if this initiative is passed as worded, which would cost the County money. The 9111 report was commissioned by the County to analyze the initiative.
Napa Vision 2050, the group promoting Measure C, states on their website; “Deforestation of watershed oak woodlands and around streams and wetlands increases soil erosion, decreases year-round water availability, and reduces water quality.” It also states that the initiative will help to protect the watershed woodlands and streams from harmful development. Mike Hackett and Jim Wilson are the authors of this initiative. Hackett is quoted in the St. Helena Star, giving the reasons for bringing forth this measure as, “The most important environmental and social justice issue today is protection of our natural resources and the future of the quality and quantity of our water supplies.”
Klobas says that they have repeatedly asked for scientific evidence to substantiate these claims being made, which forced this initiative onto the ballot for June 2018, yet none has been presented. “We wish that they would have engaged in a process and come to the organizations that represent agriculture in the County. Voters shouldn’t mistake the historical agricultural protections with the desire to limit vineyard.”
Klobas feels that scare tactics are being used, and he is seeing this as “an opportunity to educate the public on how dangerous this initiative is, narrowly targeting vineyard planting.”
Outspoken vintner, Stuart Smith, is irritated by the lack of due process. “We live in a free-market capitalist society, with democracy and property rights. They did not go through the process of going to the board of supervisors, instead they went to an initiative process. If they had gone through due process, like a stakeholders meeting and through the Board of Supervisors, etc., we might have come to some agreement.”
According to Smith, a version of the initiative was first submitted in 2016, but the State Supreme Court of California ruled that it was flawed and didn’t meet the state requirements. Authors of this initiative have submitted plans, seemingly unsuccessfully, three times.
He points out that the environmental community doesn’t want any more roads built in California, so the result, in Napa Valley, is horrible congestion. No one likes the jammed up thoroughfares, he states, but he thinks that it is a result of the choice not to build roads. Traffic congestion then “makes angry people angrier,” with the scapegoat being the vineyards and wineries. Smith acknowledges that this is a very divisive issue in his County, within a currently very angry and divided country.
However, his position is that Napa County, since the Ag Preserve was put in place, has had a comprehensive and successful general plan, with “agriculture as the highest and best use of the land.” It keeps the land in the country in agriculture, and housing in the cities. “Hackett and Wilson are now changing every fundamental aspect of the Napa General Plan,” says Smith. “This initiative will undercut that general plan. It will put houses on a higher level of priority in the general plan within the oak woodlands, because agriculture will be not allowed.”
Klobas says, “Napa has some of the most stringent [agricultural] regulations in the country. The initiative provisions may conflict with well-written, clearly defined planning documents. We believe that Measure C is anti-agriculture. It narrowly targets vineyard planting, and doesn’t preclude luxury homes, event centers, wineries, etc.” This would mean that although vineyards would be prohibited, grandiose housing, event centers, and even more wineries would still be able to use that land.
Smith says that were he being selfish, he would be for this proposal. “I’m incentivized to vote for it, as it will limit vineyards and drive up my [own] vineyard property prices,” he notes. But taking away property rights infringes on what he believes in. “There cannot be middle ground when you take something from somebody for your own benefit. They are taking the property rights from a third of the county.”
When asked about the new James Conaway book, “Napa At Last Light,” which decries the development of the wine industry in Napa Valley and makes the case for Measure C, Smith called it self-serving, while Klobas cautioned readers not to confuse historical agricultural protections with the desire to limit vineyards.
Friends of Napa River are staying neutral, as is Napa Regional Parks. Sources there say they wish that proper protocol would have been followed, instead of ramrodding this initiative through onto the ballot.
Through another program, the conservation easement program, the Land Trust of Napa County has worked with vintners and other land owners to place over 55,000 acres of Napa into conservation easements, ensuring these parcels will stay rural. The county has checks in place, it would seem, to protect the land from complete engulfment by grape vines. Smith offers up a heart-felt entreaty; “Measure C is a major threat to fundamental tenets of Napa. No one knows where Napa is going; it is constantly changing. Napa has the least amount of people per square mile. We have a vibrant tourist industry, and people are upset about that. The people that live here are opposed to us [wineries and grape growers]. They want the fruits of our labor (a beautiful Valley) but they don’t want to see us doing the hard work necessary to sell wine, which depends on direct to consumer sales, and being able to welcome customers to your winery. We need to be able to sell our product. Let’s have a discussion about that.”