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Is It Time to Drop the Gauntlet on Development?

Columnist: Christina Julian
June, 2015 Issue
Columnist

Christina Julian
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Winery development is indeed a problem, whether or not the powers that be are ready to do something about it.

 
I’ve voiced my concern over the preponderance of wineries in Napa County. I’ve also likened this saturation to Disneyland. Like any good complainer, at times, I wonder if I’ve been too harsh in my judgments. But in March, the Napa County Joint Board of Supervisors and Planning Commission “growth summit” came along and drew 400 attendees—many of whom seemed equally irked about winery growth. The meeting waged on for six hours, three of which were consumed by public comment, including words from the coalition to stop growth and on up to organization heads from the Napa Valley Farm Bureau, Vintners and Grape Growers, along with everyday folks just like me. Yet none of this provoked the powers that be to place a moratorium on new wineries. It was disheartening, given the county has approved an average of 18 winery use permits per year for the last seven years, with 41 pending requests for new wineries and modifications still on deck for this year.
 
A consolation prize came with the formation of a new Winery Definition Ordinance (WDO) committee charged with retooling the policies around development that were set forth in 1990. It’s a smart move, given much has changed since, according to the onslaught of data presented at the meeting. Here are some of the standout stats: The bottling of our local grape production has grown 243 percent since 1995. During that same period, the number of working wineries in Napa County catapulted from 200 to 700. Napa County hosts 4.9 million visitor trips annually (in comparison to the Mouse House at 15.9 million), which leads to our ever-evolving traffic problem. Still more data revealed that 52 percent of Napa County pass-through traffic travels via Highway 12 from the Sonoma County line to the Solano County line. This is even more interesting, given only 21 percent of the total daily trips into Napa County were tagged as “visitor” trips.
 
This last fact validates my other favorite soapbox, which could easily become a country crooner’s tear-soaked ballad titled “Where Has All the Affordable Housing Gone?” While winery development continues to soar, it’s not the only culprit, given the wine industry is the fifth-largest employer in the county and accounts for only 15 to 17 percent of our traffic.
 
But here’s the good news: Napa County is close to head of the class status when it comes to meeting the gold standard of 1.5 jobs to every house—just 10,000 more jobs and we’re there. Atta boy, Napa County: We have ample housing to outfit our employee base. Unfortunately, the employees can’t afford to live here. The 2014 median value of housing in Napa County was $487,000. A figure that may not seem outlandish in the Bay Area sea of deep pockets, with San Francisco at $893,000 and Marin County at $982,000. In Napa County, it would take an income of between $105,000 and $263,000 to sustain our housing prices, yet our median income level is $69,600, meaning most of our workforce has to live elsewhere and commute to Napa County—traffic caper solved.
 
But here’s more kindling to toss into the fire, illuminated when I dined at the bar at Evangeline in Calistoga. I swapped stories with a newfound neighbor, who, like me, opted for country life over city. Unlike me, she didn’t make the plunge voluntarily. “We were priced out of out of San Francisco,” she confessed. This notion—Napa Valley, the affordable choice—would make many people laugh. But it isn’t so entertaining when they flee here. Not only has our valley become a habitat for the hedge fund set, but for the tech-fund set, too.
 
I digest my reality over the Evangeline red (tasty and affordable) and come to some conclusions. Winery development is indeed a problem, whether or not the powers that be are ready to do something about it. The grapes will still grow as the traffic overflows, the confluence of which threatens to trample the everyman and woman dwelling on our coveted strip. And if none of that does it, the cost of everyday living might. It’s a notion that crystallizes at Calmart the following night, when I drop $31 for a couple gallons of milk, a rotisserie chicken and a loaf of bread—seriously.
 
But then my husband, the longtime local, reminds me. I chose to come here, from the concrete jungles of New York and Los Angeles, for a different way of life, where a wine sipped overlooking a vineyard with a view makes even the absurd feel like a dream come true.

 

 

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