Napa's Measure C Is Dead; the War Over Hillside Vineyards Has Just Begun

The ballot initiative that would have protected watersheds by sharply restricting vineyard plantings lost by a slim margin
Napa's Measure C Is Dead; the War Over Hillside Vineyards Has Just Begun
Measure C went down to defeat, but supporters plan to propose a new ballot initiative. (Napa Valley Register via ZUMA Wire)
Jun 26, 2018

Three weeks after Napa's June 5 election, the Napa County Registrar of Voters has finally certified the results of the tight race on Measure C, the ballot proposal that could have restricted vineyard development in Napa's watersheds. The controversial measure was voted down by a slim margin of just 641 votes out of 35,707 cast.

"We feel tremendous appreciation for the hundreds of volunteers that helped raise awareness about this defining environmental issue," said Mike Hackett, co-author of the measure. "Approximately 18,000 citizens believe that our water resources are in jeopardy and that we need to curb vineyard development on our hillsides."

But the war over Napa's future is far from over. C supporters have promised to propose a new ballot initiative. Opponents are asking for both sides to work with county officials to address any concerns over the wine industry.

An ugly fight

Both parties spent months campaigning, seeking to win over the public on what quickly became a divisive election. "Yes" and "No" signs were prominent throughout the valley; town-hall meetings and campaign ads sparked conflicts. Both parties claimed that their opponents were misleading the public. The measure's backers even took the opposing side to court over language on the ballot.

Hackett and friend Jim Wilson, both retired, rural residents of Napa, drafted the measure, also known as the Napa County Watershed and Oak Woodland Protection Initiative of 2018, with the intent to enhance safeguards for the county's oak woodlands and watersheds. The measure, which had support from some vintners, would have amended Napa County zoning rules to further tighten restrictions on the removal of oak trees, and create new standards for buffers near streams and wetlands.

The opposition, which included all the major wine-trade groups in Napa, argued that the initiative was poorly written and would lead to many unintended consequences. "A lot of people were confused and had very different ideas about what the initiative was going to accomplish," said Ryan Klobas, policy director for Napa County Farm Bureau. "If you put 100 people in a room, they all would have different opinions."

Was the proposal necessary?

Opponents and local officials also felt that the current rules protecting county land work well, and could be tweaked if people felt there were holes. "Our main talking point was that we already have a regulatory process that is working," said Dave Whitmer, a Napa County Planning Commission board member who opposed the measure. (He also sits on the board of Napa Valley Grapegrowers.)

Hackett believes a precious opportunity was lost to show the world that growers and vintners in Napa were willing to take the lead in implementing a sustainable vision for the community's future. "The wine industry has done an incredible amount of harm to its own reputation," he said, contending that in the long run, the effect of not taking the necessary steps to protect the watershed now will haunt the wine industry in the future.

For Whitmer, claims by C supporters that oak trees are being clear cut with little protection doesn't add up. He cites the annual crop reports for the county, showing that the average annual increase in vineyard acreage over the past five years is just 177 acres. Additionally, the overall percentage of the valley planted to vines increased from 8 percent in 2000, to 9 percent in 2017. "I don't think the data bears it out that we have a monster to hold back," he said. He also questions where the data is that says the watersheds are being affected.

Whitmer said that while giving talks to voters about the measure, the fight over the Walt Ranch project came up often. In 2005, Craig and Kathryn Hall of Hall Wines purchased 2,300 acres in the eastern hills with the intent to plant vines. An initial environmental study showed that vineyard development in the area could cause potentially significant impacts. The Hall team reduced the size of their project, and a final environmental report showed there would be no significant impact, which lead the county to approve the project. (The project is currently on hold due to pending lawsuits.)

"People are still upset and can't reconcile that trees are being lost at that scale," said Whitmer, despite the analysis that showed no significant impact on the environment. "You can't have it both ways, and say that these regulations are necessary and then, when the process is complete, get upset that it didn't work out the way you wanted it to."

It's not over yet

Looking forward, Hackett remains steadfast in his team's commitment to protecting Napa's watersheds. "There's been a dramatic increase in awareness on both sides, and the wine industry must realize that there's growing contempt from our community," he said. Hackett adds that while no plans have been made yet, he believes that the results command Measure C proponents to move forward with another initiative as soon as possible. "There are no winners here, and the oak woodlands will continue to be clear-cut for vineyards," he said.

Klobas disagrees. "These issues are important, but we should work collaboratively and go through the board of supervisors to enact change," he said, adding that making changes by initiative means another costly election.

Whitmer adds that the Planning Commission and Napa County Board of Supervisors heard the concerns that were brought up during the election, and are already considering what amendments, if any, need to be made. Whitmer also mentions that it may be a good time for a comprehensive review of the regulatory system. "Why not now, if the proponents and the public believe there is a problem with the process?" he asked. He believes an informed, data-driven debate should drive the conversation, not campaign rhetoric.

"We realize the issue isn't over," said Klobas. "If changes are to occur, we need to conduct an in-depth review of existing regulations and a study of the impact of vineyards in the watersheds that is rooted in science, and that's something I think the public can trust."


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