Rules without recourse is a lot like having no rules at all.
I’ve tap-danced around the growth issues that plague Napa Valley, but the tiptoeing days are over. Ever since the March 10 Board of Supervisors meeting, when the Agricultural Protection Advisory Committee (APAC) was formed to address winery development and agricultural protection, battle lines have blown up all over the place. Community members and coalitions like Napa Vision 2050 united to save Napa Valley—from itself. There are far too many facets of this controversy to cover in one column, so, this month’s missive is devoted to dissecting the Napa Grand Jury Report for 2014-2015, with installments on other aspects to follow.
To tame or torture the beast
The May 15 Grand Jury report acts like a score card, grading Napa County wineries on adherence to use permit guidelines as dictated by the Winery Definition Ordinance (WDO) that was created in 1990 to protect the land. The Grand Jury report also comments on how effectively these guidelines are being monitored and enforced along with issues around what, if any, repercussions are in place when the rules are violated.
In the seven-year period that ended in 2013, an average of 18 use permits were approved (each year), which resulted in an average of eight new wineries and 10 expansions per year, and accounted for 180,000 gallons of additional wine production.
While the Grand Jury concluded that planning staff does a “conscientious job of reviewing use permit applications” and that “code enforcement staff is doing a professional job” when it comes to compliance monitoring and auditing, there was this nifty disclaimer: “in so far as their limited resources permit.” Limited is one way to look at it. Inadequate might be another, given only one staff member spent 30 percent of the time auditing compliance. The Planning Commission heeded the jury’s recommendation and hired a second code enforcement staffer for 2015, whose job is also only partially dedicated to code enforcement. Math has never been my thing, but this still doesn’t seem to add up to one whole person overseeing enforcement for the 467 wineries that make up the county database.
Further compounding matters, under the current model, only 20 wineries are audited each year. At this rate, it’ll be decades before all the existing wineries are audited. And, all the while, new ones continue to infiltrate the land. But that’s not the only problem. Of all the use permit criteria that’s monitored, there’s no assessment or stipulation around water use and wastewater treatment, nor do the existing WDO and Ag Preserve definitions mandate a legal limit on the number of wineries that can occupy our pint-sized strip of a valley.
Breaking the rules
As my parents tell it, I was all about breaking the rules as a youngster. Given the behavior of my 2-year-old toddlers, my childhood dream of inhabiting a rule-breaking environment may very well come true. For the audit years of 2011 to 2013, the percent of wineries that were out of compliance rose from 29 percent to 40 percent. When it comes to disciplining toddlers, some say acting out could be a sign of poor discipline (or perhaps a lack of it).
When it comes to wineries, the same rules of reason could apply. Many, including the Grand Jury, have expressed concern over the lack of transparency when it comes to identifying which wineries are rule breakers, as well as rising concern over the absence of a defined list of penalties for code violations. This conjures certain child psychology sentiments like: Rules without recourse is a lot like having no rules at all.
The report ended with a number of tough love tactics, including recommendations that the Planning Committee up the number of code enforcement audits and move to make the list of noncompliant wineries more transparent by January 2016. It’s also suggested that the Board of Supervisors and Planning Commissioners develop a process for monitoring and inspection of winery water treatment and disposal, the establishment of penalties for noncompliance, as well as an intense review of the WDO to determine if it, as written, is sufficient to regulate and maintain a wine industry for the long haul.
Like any good reprimand, it’s hard to know if all this belt tightening will cause wineries to fall in line while miraculously curtailing the rate of winery growth, or, as is oft the case with teenage groundings, ignite the flames of rebellion.
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