Every month as I sit down to write this column, I inevitably scrap the story I intended to write when another news bite about the Napa Valley growth controversy storms into my inbox. My commitment to this coverage borders on an addiction. I can’t seem to stop myself from commenting. As is often the case with any addiction, I have to ask myself if this latest binge is really worth it considering the hangover that’s sure to follow—a la traffic and tourist stampede. For some, absolutely; to others, whose plight I follow this month, hell no.
This month’s breaking bulletin came when a clearing crew got busy at the 11-acre parcel by First St. and the Silverado Trail in downtown Napa that will become another high-end hotel and resort that could open as early as 2019. It’s a move that came at the hand of developer Palm Hill Inc. as part of a deal that was brokered back in 2008 but just re-entered the limelight.
Like any addict, I’ll justify my obsession and then blame somebody else: my 2-year-old twins. Before they arrived on the scene, I was unphased by winery growth. But as snagging last minute seats at favored restaurants becomes harder, and my ability to slip in and out of the grocery store with ease wanes, I’ve begun to bend towards the side of being more annoyed than enamored by what I’ll dub the “growth epidemic.” As I watch my rambunctious toddlers run free through neighboring vineyards, innocence and abandon flying with them in the wind, my mind can’t help but to race forward—envisioning what life in this valley will be like when they’re old enough to enjoy the “fruits” of our region. Will the sense of community that drew me here still exist?
It’s these thoughts that drove me to a meeting held by Napa Vision 2050, a coalition that formed last year to address community concerns over growth. President Dan Mufson took us through a broad strokes overview of the group’s mission, which scrutinizes everything from winery event centers and water issues to use permit compliance and traffic. George Caloyannidis presented a recap of the group’s Economic Growth Forum, which took place in April. The event brought in experts from the fields of planning, tourism and economics to speak to the perils of hyper tourism and over-development. I tried to discern if this coalition was merely a congenial gathering of people pining over our valley’s past or if there was any merit to which they speak.
Stats from various marketing studies were batted about, revealing such dandies as Napa County has 140,000 residents, 80,000 jobs, caters to 3.3 million tourists annually who account for 1.63 billion in spending (and 33 percent of our traffic). Caloyannidis closed with a final bit from the forum that asked people to counter the claims that new resorts bring big money to our community and urged citizens to ask: How much of that revenue will actually go back into the local economy? He concluded with the pink elephant question of the year: Is it time to put the breaks on growth?
In a separate discussion, coalition member Geoff Ellsworth shared his theory on the crux of the problem. “There was a change to the definition of ‘agriculture’ in 2008, which elevated the marketing aspect to be equal to farming. This fundamentally changed the way wineries viewed onsite consumption. Now we get outside people coming in and drinking excessively—it’s become the spring break model. People don’t want to live in St. Helena anymore because of it. We’re losing our sense of community.”
Ellsworth also spoke to the ballot initiative that Napa Vision 2050 is sponsoring in November, “This measure will protect trees on the hillside from being cut down and will protect the areas around our water sources.”
I’ve seen what began as modest and largely community based set of industries morph into huge, corporate and outside investor driven juggernaut that cares little for the impact on the lives of local residents.”
Napa County citizens are far from alone in this thinking. While drafting this column, KQED announced an airing of a “Forum” segment:
There’s no arguing that our valley has benefited greatly from growth over the past few decades, when Napa Valley grew from podunk grape town to world renowned wine region. The question that remains is as ripe as ever—one a college co-ed might easily ask a dorm mate hot off the heels of a spring break bender: When we look at ourselves in the proverbial mirror five, 10 or even 20 years from now, will we like what we see?
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