In the local will-they-won’t-they Walt Ranch controversy, that at times has felt as contentious as the plea for the presidency, the Board of Supervisors has spoken (and not the people, some argue). Last June, David Morrison, county planning, building and environmental services director, approved the project, which would include the creation of 209 acres of vineyard blocks off the 2300-acre parcel. But the issue was far from dead. The ruling was appealed by the Center for Biological Diversity, Living Rivers Council, The Napa Sierra Club and the Circle Oaks Homes Association and Water District.
At the November Board of Supervisors meeting, opponents took to the street in protest outside the city administration building. The proceedings, which waged on for 11 hours over three days, were ripe with public comment, professional commentary and reviews and rehashes of environmental impact reports and analysis. In a move that surprised some and enraged others, all four appeals were denied at the December meeting when the supervisors voted unanimously in favor of Walt Ranch. Supervisor Mark Luce went as far as saying, “I’m very confident the environment will be in better shape after this project.” After hearing the lengthy set of presentations that sought to squash environmental concern, the Luce comment feels like a bit of a stretch, especially when a projected 14,000 trees still stand in potential peril. (This is down from the 30,000 that were previously reported.)
In response to concerns, perhaps most adamantly voiced by Circle Oaks residents, the county will get busy on the development defining “trigger points,” referred to as a yellow light/red light system. If water levels dip below designated markers, Walt Ranch owners will be notified to take action. This all sounds good in theory, as did the red means stop, yellow slow system I deployed as a disciplinary tactic with my toddlers, until one too many triggers turn yellow lights to red and inflame an already tenuous situation (or toddler). As I know all too well, one person’s yellow is another woman’s red.
As one controversy closes, new buds break for another. A mere month after Prop 64 passed, our sister (Sonoma) county’s board of supervisors pulled triggers of their own with proposals for additional taxes, permits and regulatory measures against existing and soon-to-be-legal cannabis operators across the county. Will Napa be next in line to jump on the gravy train? Given the expected financial uptick of $1 billion in tax revenue (according to the research from the state’s department of finance), I’d guess that’s an affirmative. Despite all the perceived financial good tidings that are expected to roll our way it could be as far out as 2018 before Californians notice a surge in legit pot shops, as the state has until January 1, 2018, to begin issuing retail licenses.
With some of our bigger state and local debates behind us (for now), the winery growth spurt and resort boom shows no signs of slowing. While it seems unlikely that anything will curb tourists from rubbernecking their way down the 29 to gawk (or point and shoot) at the Napa Valley signs nor from crawling down the highway on a hunt and peck mission to find wineries, help is at the ready. Some opt to complain about the problem (ok, me), while others do their part to solve it. Last August, Dario Sattui, for example, launched a program at his Castello di Amorosa that offers cash incentives ($5 per round trip commute under 15 miles, and $10 for those 15 miles or more) for employees that opt to walk, bike, bus or rideshare their way to work. Not a bad way to roll (or earn an extra buck), especially since the traffic up and down the valley seems to be doing a lot more ebbing than flowing these days.
In a press release touting the project, Sattui cites stats about local traffic patterns from a study by the Napa Valley Transportation Authority. (For more information, see www.nvta.ca.gov/travel-behavior-study.) The report shows that only 21 percent of our traffic comes at the hand of tourism. He surmises that commuter traffic, among other components, may be the more damaging culprits. “There are many factors—such as the lack of affordable housing—which cause the traffic, which we all are noticing. If other wineries follow our lead and incentivize their employees to share their rides and take public transportation, we may see a difference in a relatively short period of time.” Kind of like our country’s trek to the moon—one large winery, one small step for wine country dwellers.
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