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Bouncing Back: Napa Valley Tourism Remains Strong Thanks to the Region’s Focus on the Land

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The Napa Valley Ag Preserve Protects Working Landscapes and
Attracts Visitors from Across the Globe

By Brian Russell

Despite the devastating wildfires that recently rocked the region – and much to the delight of businesses that rely on tourism – visitors from around the world continue to flock to Napa Valley, Calif., one of the world’s premier wine regions.

In the last five years, Napa County has been ravaged by multiple major wildfires, each burning tens of thousands of acres and – in some cases – razing entire communities. 

The Atlas and Tubbs fires started October 8, 2017, when strong winds downed power lines and caused fire eruptions in Napa and Sonoma counties. That event burned 245,000 acres, caused $14.5 billion in damages, forced 90,000 people to evacuate from their homes and created lengthy power disruptions for 350,000 households. 

Glass fire captured in Calistoga California (Napa Valley)

The LNU Lighting Complex fire ignited August 17, 2020, in Napa Valley and burned for 46 days. That devastating fire destroyed 363,220 acres and 1,441 structures.

The Glass Fire started September 27, 2020, in the hills above St. Helena in Napa County. In total, it demolished 67,484 acres and 1,555 structures, including 308 homes and 343 commercial buildings. The Glass fire incinerated several wineries and obliterated three hotels.

These latest fire emergencies were further complicated by the COVID-19 pandemic, which had shut down most businesses in the state a few months earlier. Between the lockdown and fire-related evacuations, Napa Valley was effectively put on hold. No one was rushing to fill its calendars.

The Economy Recovers

Instead of being weighed down, however, Napa Valley’s economy bounced back — with conviction — from these unforeseen and devastating events. While several parts of the valley still display evidence of the fires, such as blackened trees or charred and empty home foundations, visitors from near and far still strongly believe that Napa Valley is one of the world’s most desirable destinations.  

Today, the Napa Valley economy is healthy. The region produces almost 50 million cases of wine per year and contributes $50 billion to the total United States economy. Napa’s economic health is also evidenced by two new high-end hotels that opened this year, each with rooms starting at around $1,000 per night. Data from the recent Smith Travel Research report shows average daily rates for hotels in Napa Valley have jumped in the last couple of years and occupancy is strong.  

The steady flow of visitors coming to experience the region, despite major setbacks from natural disasters and the pandemic, begs the question: What really draws people to Napa Valley? Yes, the region has great restaurants and incredible wines, but what really drives people to visit the valley is its natural beauty.  

The magnificence of Napa Valley lies in its dramatic landscapes and lush vineyards, which lure people to the area. What few visitors realize is that these vistas might not exist today without the Napa Valley Agricultural Preserve.  

Ag Preserve Sets the Standard

Launched in 1968 by the Napa County Board of Supervisors and the Napa County Planning Commission, the Napa Valley Agricultural Preserve protects Napa Valley’s agricultural growing region.  

Napa Vines and hillsThe goal of the preserve is to keep the area’s rich land for agricultural use and to impede developers from converting agriculturally zoned land to housing or other urban uses. That purpose is laid out in the first section of the ordinance, which states: “This district classification is intended to be applied in the fertile valley and foothill areas of Napa County from Napa to Calistoga, in which agriculture is and should continue to be the predominant land use, where uses incompatible to agriculture should be precluded and where development of urban type uses would be detrimental to the continuance of agriculture and the maintenance of open spaces which are economic and aesthetic attributes and assets of the County of Napa.”

To make agricultural land economically unattractive to developers, policy makers decided to prevent the formation of small parcels to deter development. Napa County’s code dictates that the minimum parcel size on the valley floor must be 40 acres; in the hillsides, the minimum parcel size is 160 acres. 

Duckhorn Estate in Napa, California
Duckhorn Estate in Napa, California

Overall, this planning policy worked. Due to smart, forward-thinking land use planning, the majority of Napa Valley remains agricultural. For more than 50 years, no large developments have been built in Napa Valley.

Creating the Ag Preserve in Napa Valley was groundbreaking legislation, as it was the first agricultural preserve in U.S. history. Without a doubt, the foresight of the Ag Preserve has helped Napa Valley remain an agricultural gem that continues to attract visitors from around the world.  

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Brian Russell, Hanson Bridgett LLP
Brian Russell, Hanson Bridgett LLP

Brian Russell

Brian Russell is counsel at Hanson Bridgett LLP. He has nearly two decades of experience representing Napa and Sonoma wine and hospitality businesses in all real estate, corporate and licensing matters. His practice areas include business, real estate, land use, CEQA, water rights and natural resources, trademark and municipal law. Brian has advised clients on contract negotiation, real estate acquisitions, alcohol beverage licensing, drafting purchase agreements, entity formation and securing land use entitlements in Napa and Sonoma Counties. In addition, Brian counsels clients on property due diligence, resolving zoning matters and land purchase agreements. He can be reached at brussell@hansonbridgett.com or (707) 512-5255.

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