A Challenge to the County’s Compliance with the Law by The Alliance for Responsible Governance
In a letter dated August 11, 2017, the environmental law firm Shute, Mihaly & Weinberger, representing The Alliance for Responsible Governance, a group “whose members are strong supporters of the sustainable economic growth in Napa County within the context of the agricultural protections embraced by the citizens of Napa County and codified within the County’s General Plan,” put Napa County Board of Supervisors and Napa County Planning Commission on notice:
“You have a pattern and practice of failing to comply with California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA). Correct this, or we will make sure you do!”
The law firm studied every permit granted since 2013 and determined that only two of the 93 winery permits had adequate environmental review. They believe projects were approved with improper use of categorical exemptions (which allows avoidance of CEQA review) and negative declarations (no significant impact, since there is no CEQA review). Furthermore they believe traffic and noise were not properly evaluated. Citing a 2015 grand jury finding, “Napa County’s oversight of wineries is almost non-existent, and therefore insufficient to insure compliance with CEQA.”
The letter cites particularly egregious examples: In 2016 Caymus Vineyards was granted major modifications under a categorical exemption which allowed substantial road modifications, changes in production levels, and building demolition. However, a threefold increase in visitation to 450 visitors a day was also granted without CEQA review. These substantial increases in visitation and production, which will have cumulative impacts on the environment, traffic and noise, were not considered.
In the period referenced in the letter (2013-2016), the County approved an increase of over a million visitors and permitted over a million square feet of winery surface area expansion– almost all without consideration of cumulative impact on our County.
The letter further states that the County routinely miscalculates Project Baseline by including unpermitted (illegal) uses and activities in the baseline analysis when assessing a potential project’s impacts. Baseline activities avoid environmental review because they are already happening. “At least 10 of the 68 permit applications that the county received were fromwineries who were operating illegally.” Illegal activities include unpermitted marketing events, visitation in excess of permitted levels, unauthorized facility development, and exceeding production levels.
The example of Reverie Winery was given. Although the existing use permit allowed only 20 visitors per week and six small events a year, the Planning Commission granted a use permit modification which increased visitation ten times, despite the obvious impacts on the environment, traffic and noise—a prime example of granting forgiveness for the winery having operated illegally for a number of years.
The letter directs the County to correct its implementation of CEQA guidelines on all new and/or expanded projects and informs the County that The Alliance will “reserve(s) its right to ensure (that) the environmental impacts of new or expanded wineries are analyzed and mitigated as required by CEQA”.
We believe that these practices of our County Planning Department, Planning Commission, and Board of Supervisors circumvent and mislead the public. CEQA review is a protection for the public, telling us what these expansions are going to do to traffic, noise, congestion, water supply, and health of our environment. Furthermore, the integrity of our Ag lands, protected by the landmark zoning decision made by our forward thinking predecessors in 1968, are threatened by commercialization.
We at Napa Vision 2050 are delighted The Alliance for Responsible Governance has joined this battle to get the County to do the right thing. With our letters, appeals of Planning Commission approvals and public statements, we have been trying for several years to highlight and change these behaviors to no avail. We are pleased that someone with more money than we have has stepped up to legally force compliance and hope they will follow through to the proper conclusion. Thank you, Alliance! We don’t yet know who these folks are but they are our new best friends!