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Divided and United

Author: Christina Julian
December, 2015 Issue

Solving our valley’s breed of family squabbles feels about as likely as having a stress-free holiday season.

This year in Napa Valley has been a rambunctious one. At its most downtrodden, 2015 bordered on contentious, with the war between vacation renters and residents on up to disputes over winery growth, water use, and the exploitation of our land. Yet, as I sit back with a glass of wine in the comfort of my new home (in a quiet residential area of Calistoga), I see a different side of country living—traces of the charm that drove me out of the city and to this valley I now call home. On the brink of 2016, I’m now wondering if there’s harmony to be had between what some see as the evil stepsister of tourism and the local fairy godmothers of Napa Valley.

The tale of wine city

Back in the 1970s, cattle roamed, orchards thrived, people were sparse and vineyards were few. But as time rolled along, open parcels and vineyard land became scarce and tourism grew. The cause: our wines. Decades later, a rivalry was born between two very different siblings, what I’ll dub the sisters of change and the brothers battling against it. Each city is filled with townies, who stand in favor of what this valley was and in opposition to what it’s become and (often) what it will be in the months and years that come.
This year, we saw the rebirth of disputes over the Winery Definition Ordinance (WDO) and the formation of the Agricultural Protection Advisory Committee (APAC), each bent on protecting our ag land. Sibling squabbles stirred over whether wineries have become more like event centers than production facilities, which lead to still more bickering over the lack of adherence and enforcement of winery use permit guidelines. (See “All That’s Allowed,” Dec. 2015)
Debates also brewed over short-term vacation rentals (STRs), which took many disparate forms town-by-town. While the city of Napa worked to increase the number of STRs from 42 to (potentially) 60, St. Helena residents lobbied against the town’s existing STR policy, which lets a limited number of homeowners rent out their dwellings for less than 30 days. Supporters point to the attractive 12 percent transient occupancy tax (TOT), while opponents complain about the impact of such rentals on what was once known (and perhaps now forgotten) as “community culture.” Not at all out of line, given the number of properties advertised on vacation rental sites like Airbnb and VRBO far outweigh the permitted limits of such rentals. (See “Do Unto Others,” Oct. 2015.)

Portion control

This fall, all five Napa County Supervisors voted in favor of raising the local minimum wage beyond the state mandated level (which will rise from $9 to $10 in January 2016). Those against the increase fear fallout in the form of job loss, while supporters point to studies like the one conducted by the UC Berkeley Center for Labor Research and Education, which claims a $12 per hour minimum wage is “sustainable” for Napa County. It’s hard to fathom how anybody could live in this valley for anything close to $12 per hour, but any added bump to the minimum wage might be a start. That and an affordable housing plan, and we might be getting somewhere.
As I sip the remains of my favorite Cab (Venge Scouts Honor), with the whir of day trippers zooming past my backyard, I realize solving our valley’s breed of family squabbles feels about as likely as having a stress-free holiday season. Disagreement is as innate to family relations as winegrapes are to Napa Valley. But the remarkable thing about family is, you come together when it counts. And ours did just that when the Valley Fires ravaged our land.
Regardless what side of the fence folks sit on when discussing what Napa Valley wants to be when she grows up, we all united when the houses of our sister counties came burning down. On the weekend of September 12, Calistoga was teaming with people—except, for once, it wasn’t tourists. Instead the town buzzed, filled with those who sought refuge from homes that were no longer standing. Citizens from all over our valley, Sonoma County and beyond came to lend not only a hand but their hearts and homes. So like any good family, we have our differences, but the Napa Valley community connects when there’s a cry for help.


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