This last week we interviewed Dr. Amber Manfree, Geographer and Soda Cyn resident, about the Court’s decision to require an EIR for Mountain Peak Winery. This comes after years of hearings and years of the county’s ignoring biological facts being brought by informed citizens and experts before reviewing committees. What happened? And why now? This is one of those stories that tells us, yes, when we citizens stay on board, we can and do make a difference.

Napa Vision 2050 (NV): Amber, Mountain Peak just learned that the courts are requiring an EIR due to concern for biological resources. Would you please give us some history of this project and of the citizen group which organized to oppose the scale of it?

Amber Manfree (AM): Let’s see, the company behind Mountain Peak Winery, which is Acumen, bought the property in 2013 and filed for their first permit in 2013 or early 2014. The initial proposal was for 100,000 gallons per year production, 80 visitors a day, plus two 125-person events annually.

A nearby neighbor learned of the proposed project in March of 2014 and started alerting and organizing other Soda Canyon neighbors. We had the first meeting in April 2014. One of the amazing things about the Soda Canyon neighborhood is that we have this outstanding group of educated, capable, hardworking people. The silver lining in all of this difficult advocacy work is that we all met each other and became wonderful friends. There were a couple of lawyers and a Nobel laureate economist who was part of our team. There was a retired ship captain who had sailed all over the world and there was somebody who specializes in running events in Napa Valley. We had an accountant as treasurer for our group immediately. I was there for the biology and the environment and the mapping. We had so much skill in-house, and that’s really helpful when you’re trying to solve problems and get things done. Given the great team we had and how outrageous the proposed project was, it was hard to think that we wouldn’t prevail, in the beginning.

We had neighborhood meetings, and people scheduled one-on-one meetings with planning commissioners and supervisors. We went to the Napa County Planning Commission in 2017 and made our case.

We had science on our side and the best interests of the community at heart. If the project went through, it would cause irrevocable and substantial changes to our neighborhood’s peace and quiet, and to the traffic, which is already very dangerous on that long, dead-end, winding road.

Despite our efforts, the Planning Commission voted to approve the project. We moved it up the chain and went to the Board of Supervisors on appeal. It was sometime after the first or second public meeting when we realized that there was just no way that we were going to prevail through the County process, because no one was listening to our legitimate concerns, and that we should expect to go to these meetings and lose every time. This was a disheartening realization for all of us.

After the supervisors unanimously denied four separate appeals in 2017, that’s when the court case started. The County fought residents alongside the developer throughout the process. All the details are archived on the website.

NV: So, how do you understand what’s happened most recently with the courts saying, “Okay, we’re going to require an EIR.”

AM: With Mountain Peak Winery, Judge Cynthia Smith remanded the matter back to the Board of Supervisors in June of 2020 to work on the fire component. In a 3-2 vote, Supervisors re-approved the project in May of 2021. The Soda Canyon community appreciates the leadership Supervisors Dillon and Ramos showed by voting “no” on the project during the 2021 remand proceedings but, unfortunately, they were in the minority.

After the re-approval, the court process resumed, with the Soda Canyon Group lawyers asking Judge Smith to consider the “merits” of the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) claims, including traffic and public safety, noise pollution, surface water, biological resources, and groundwater. The question the Judge was deciding was whether there is substantial evidence in the administrative record with respect to any of the CEQA claims that the project might have one or more significant impacts on the environment. I personally thought that the traffic and groundwater arguments were strong, but Judge Smith decided that only the surface water and biological resources claims would trigger an Environmental Impact Report or EIR.

The outcome was surprising, especially given the Court’s tentative ruling, issued in January 2022, before the Court heard oral arguments.

What still boggles my mind with respect to the surface water and biological impacts, is that when the Planning Commission considered the project the summer of 2016, and then again in early 2017, and then at the Board of Supervisors, several other experts and myself explained to them that there are rainbow trout, foothill yellow-legged frogs, and California giant salamanders in the creek right next to the project. Any one of those animals being present should automatically trigger an EIR with a project like this, which proposes to move nearly two million cubic feet of cave spoils to the edges of blue line streams that feed into Rector Canyon, which flows to Rector Reservoir and serves as the water supply for the Yountville Veteran’s Home and City of Yountville. The Downstream municipal water supply seems like it should have been a big deal, honestly. They are having sedimentation problems at the water treatment plant already.

Anyway, the Planning Director, who was John McDowell at the time, sidestepped a question from Commissioner Anne Cottrell about the information I submitted in relation to the county’s biological assessment during the January 2017 Planning Commission meeting. [See 2:22:44 at video link. Cottrell was the lone vote on the Planning Commission against approving the project.

Then, when the Board of Supervisors heard the appeal, Supervisor Brad Wagenknecht asked a similar question. David Morrison said, “We relied on the Natural Diversity Database, as we do with all projects to determine whether or not a site should be studied in more detailed survey.”

With that statement, Mr. Morrison misrepresented the California Natural Diversity Database, or CNDDB. It’s not definitive. It is designed to work together with expert field knowledge, and expert field knowledge always wins over what’s in that database because there are lots of reasons why something may not be entered into it. Often, biologists don’t have access to the areas they would need to survey to make a determination, because they are on private property. Really, anything that might impact threatened or endangered species’ habitat should involve a field survey. But you can see how easily developers can misuse the database when they are working with a friendly Planning Department.

So, the way the process works when you’re in the Board Chambers making public comment is, you can go up and make your three-minute presentation, but after that, you don’t get to talk again. The planning staff can rebut whatever you say, and you don’t have a chance to say anything else.

I had such a hard time staying in my seat, if you watch the tape, I am saying “what, what?!” in the background, and later wiping tears away. Planning Staff had made a bad-faith argument and there was nothing I could do before it went to a vote. It was infuriating. [See 4:51:20 at]

NV: Then how do they get away with that? That is just such a bad practice.

AM: The Planning Director told them what he needed to in order to enable them to legally vote “Yes” on the project. He provided them the cover. And if we hadn’t fought it in court, where the judge could make an independent assessment, it would’ve just gone ahead.

It is County Planning staff’s job to know that the CNDDB database is intended to be complemented by field surveys, and that there’s a buffer around properties that has to be considered. It’s in all the documentation, and they teach you in school that it’s a presence-only dataset, which means that the only way you’re going to have a record in there is if a qualified field person has gone out, looked at the environment and said, “Oh yes, there’s a protected species, or suitable habitat, here.” And then they enter the record in the database, but that doesn’t mean that the species isn’t on the next property and the next one. Surveyors can only go to the places they have access to, and most land in the state is private, or inaccessible. And that’s why you have to do site surveys.

Quote from CDBBD Management Framework: “The absence of data in the CNDDB is NOT proof of absence and does not constitute the basis for a negative declaration.”

NV: The faulty data or the lack of data and non-definitive resources is used to make big decisions. What you’re saying is so important. These are the kinds of loopholes that are so detrimental to the environment. And it’s really because we don’t know about these things.

AM: The really awful thing is that, the way the planning process works in Napa County, the burden of proof is on private citizens who have to somehow pull it together. And that’s what I’m saying about Soda Canyon Road. The neighborhood has this really special mix of skilled people. And if it wasn’t for that, the community never would have been able to prevail over the very well-funded developer behind the project.

NV: Why did the requirement for the EIR come down now and not earlier?

AM: It went to the Planning Commission, then the Board of Supervisors, then court, and then it went back to the Supervisors, and then it went back to court, all of that takes many, many months.

NV: The power of having attorneys on your side! Otherwise, it becomes unaffordable and unattainable for most people.

AM: Yes. Yeoryios Apallas and Anthony Arger have been amazing. This project’s been going on so long that Anthony completed law school, passed the bar in two states, got married, started a family, and now he has kids that are up to my hip. We are very lucky that we have these neighbors who are so committed to this project because, if not for their leadership during the administrative process and in court, this would’ve been impossible. The other neighbors have been great, too. They’ve done fundraising, community meetings, a letter-writing campaign, establishing and running the non-profits, and lots more. We are very fortunate to have such an incredible, tight-knit community.

NV: Would you say Napa County has changed with how it looks at these types of projects?

AM: Unfortunately, I don’t think so. There are different Planning Commissioners than we had 5-10 years ago but, the Board of Supervisors are the same people. There are a couple of Supervisor seats open for the June 7th election, so we’ll see if things change then.

NV: it definitely seems to come down to three supervisors on any Tuesday.

AM: Yes. I’ve had the pleasure of talking with several former Napa County Supervisors and Planning Commissioners and others who’ve been in local governance in Napa. What they described was that, in years past, coming out the 1980s and well into the 1990s, there was a really high functioning Board of Supervisors doing things that were genuinely good for the community. They were running authentic stakeholder processes, restructuring Health and Human Services, and overall being very productive. And that’s not to say that there wasn’t contention within those processes, but the outcomes were really good for the community, and they built trust.

Creating the plan for the Napa River Flood Management Project was the biggest one, and an incredible capacity was generated in parallel to the plan itself for doing good stakeholder processes, where people came together and they would argue at first, and then they would get to work. They eventually came up with a plan that they all thought was good.

In the end, we look back and we think, “Oh, the Napa Flood Management Project, this beautiful community project that everybody worked on together, and wasn’t it great?” But if you were part of it back in the day, in the mid-nineties, it was acrimonious; it was a knockdown drag-out fight. And we like to ignore that because it turned out so well. The notable point and takeaway is that there were true leaders who were willing to engage in a good stakeholder process that led us to this positive outcome that we appreciate now.

Some things changed in leadership in the early 2000s and it just has not been the same since. Based on conversations that I’ve had with people who were in government for long spans of time, there appears to have been an intentional dismantling and reorganizing of the processes by which the community arrives at outcomes. When I think of how, as an individual member of the community, I’ve been observing how decision-making has changed through time, when I got all of this backstory from the people who had lived it, it made so much sense because it’s very consistent.

NV: Amber, one thing that you didn’t mention, and maybe it just doesn’t fit in with all this, is the fire issue; the issue of people, buses, and traffic being trapped up there in a fire. Is that part of the EIR process too?

AM: I imagine that will be part of the EIR process going forward. The Soda Canyon Group did present a lot of fire evidence, and the fire issue is one of the reasons this took so long. The project was initially approved by the Board of Supervisors in August of 2017, and then the Atlas Fire happened just a couple of months later, in October. We lost over a hundred homes on Soda Canyon Road overnight in that fire, and two people died. Evacuees were blocked by a fallen tree, and people were being helicoptered out to safety.

It was remarkable that just a couple of months after the project got approved, we had a climate change-fueled megafire take off in the middle of the night, and all of our testimony during the administrative process on fire risk was demonstrated to be understated if anything. That fire was everyone’s worst nightmare, and then some. So when the judge heard the case in June 2020, she decided that the Board of Supervisors did not adequately consider fire risk, and she remanded the project back to the Board for reconsideration. The Board looked at it again and came up with the condition was that there would be no visitation on red flag days. No other changes.

The perspective of the residents is that this condition is inadequate. Even if it’s not a red flag day, you could still have a pretty bad fire start. The whole area is a Very High Fire Hazard Severity Zone because of the slopes and the vegetation. With projects like this that are adjacent to wild lands, every time you bring another human in, you’re increasing the risk of fire because at least 95% of fire ignitions are caused by humans doing things, like operating automobiles, weed whackers, electric fences, tractors, and heavy equipment. All the things you have to do to run a modern farm or run a winery, even just another person who’s a smoker, all of it increases fire risk.

Plus, the more we build in these landscapes, the more we have to lose. Firefighting resources are stretched. The fire insurance market is crazy right now. Insurance premiums for Soda Canyon residents and property owners are skyrocketing, or in many cases, insurance coverage is being dropped altogether. If this project does keep moving forward, who knows if they will even be able to insure it?

NV: It’s really on citizens to stay on board, not lose heart. And unfortunately, it’s a very expensive process, long and arduous. Amber, is there more to say on this, on Mountain Peak right now?

AM: I guess two things: first, the reason this project is so important is that it sets a precedent for winery construction in remote areas of Napa County; and second, some of the people who decided to oppose Mountain Peak Winery, especially the ones who added their names to the lawsuit and became the Soda Canyon Group, depend on the wine industry for their income and are working, or have worked, in wine or tourism. So the opposition to Mountain Peak is not coming from a place of wanting to oppose the wine industry in general.

The reason that we, as a group, decided it was important to oppose this project is that it is a wildly oversized plan for its location. It’s a large facility with heavy visitation that’s proposed for a remote, fire-prone area. The applicant wants to bring in a large volume of tourists and excavate wine caves the size of a Walmart. Where are all those cave tailings going to go? They’re going to go right next to creeks with a bunch of threatened and endangered species in them, above Yountville’s water supply reservoir.

The concept is just so inappropriate for the place where they’re proposing it. The owners of this project have a wine tasting room right across First Street from the Archer Hotel in downtown Napa. It’s a great location to sell their product. They don’t need an enormous winery in a remote area.

The Mountain Peak proposal is very disrespectful, in terms of quality of life for neighbors. Of course, that’s not against the law. But it is something that has caused – and will continue to cause – opposition. The owners don’t live nearby, and they clearly don’t care about the experiences of members of the community who would have to live next to their development. In the eight years this project has been pending, the owners haven’t once offered to meet with Soda Canyon residents, although I have attempted to reach out to them personally. They have delegated all communication to their representatives, who have been adversarial. We are still open to direct communication with the owners.

Not many people know this, but Jan Krupp, the former owner of the Mountain Peak Winery property, considered building his own winery in upper Soda Canyon. He was smart enough to drop the proposal when the neighbors voted it down at a community meeting in the winter of 1999. It never even went to the Planning Department. Many of those neighbors went on to plant wine grapes, so clearly it’s not about opposing the entire industry. I guess the judgment call that Krupp made is one of the differences between an owner who lives in the community and understands it, and one who lives on another continent.

Another thing to consider is the sheer volume of projects moving through County Planning. Hundreds of projects have moved forward with no opposition at all between the time Mountain Peak Winery was proposed and today. So again, the Soda Canyon Group doesn’t oppose the wine industry generally. They oppose this specific proposal because it’s not suited to the location.