• Thu. Sep 22nd, 2022

Why an Ordinary Vineyard May Threaten the Future of Napa’s Wine Industry

ByStephanie M. Akbar

Aug 17, 2022

By Napa Valley standards, Green Island Vineyards is an ordinary, low-key plot for viticulture. But the land in southern Napa County is suddenly at the center of heated political debate, with some fearing its fate could jeopardize the future of Napa’s wine industry.

The owners of the vineyard say it is “rusty”, that it is no longer viable for viticulture. They want to uproot their vines and redevelop land for industrial use, such as wine cellars used for development or storage. Rezoning the land to allow this is a logical solution, they say, as the vineyard is already located next to an industrial park.

But Napa Valley conservationists, including wine and agriculture groups like the Napa County Farm Bureau and Napa Valley Vintners, fear this could set a dangerous precedent for converting conservation lands and reigniting urban sprawl.

In November, residents of American Canyon, located at the southern end of Napa County, will vote on the first major step toward redevelopment. Regardless of the outcome, some say Green Island Vineyards represents a much larger tussle growing in Napa County: the community versus the wine industry.

For decades, land use has been contentious in Napa, where preserving agriculture — and therefore the wine industry — has been a top priority. This commitment to preservation dates back to 1968, when the Napa Valley Agricultural Preserve was established. The first such designation in the United States, it protects more than 30,000 acres of valuable agricultural land in the region from urban development.

The 157-acre Green Island Vineyards (1661 Green Island Road) are located in an unincorporated pocket of Napa County and zoned for agriculture, watershed and open space use. In order to transition to industrial zoning, the property would need to be annexed by the City of American Canyon.

The Green Island vineyard is “rusty”, according to its owners.

Ethan Swope/The Chronicle

Debates over Napa County land use like this have intensified in recent years. The rapid growth of the area has left little room for expansion and the planting of new vineyards, but there is also limited space for other critical community needs, especially housing. As the demand for affordable housing in Napa County grows, the fate of some of the area’s protected acreage becomes uncertain.

Vineyard and winery development projects, like Frank Family’s Walt Ranch and Benjamin Ranch, have endured years of repeated pleas and denials from community members and activists citing environmental concerns over change. climate, hampering the growth of the wine industry. But these properties are located in premium wine regions – Atlas Peak and Rutherford, respectively – where land is extremely valuable. Green Island Vineyards, on the other hand, is in an area of ​​Napa Valley that isn’t known for producing premium wine.

Located just west of the American Canyon border and south of Napa County Airport, the area is the gateway to Napa Valley. tourists generally speed their way to the area’s wineries, hotels, and restaurants. The vineyard is next to a large industrial park which includes Amazon and Ikea.

So why so much concern about it being replaced by more warehouses?

“It’s the slippery slope argument,” said Brendon Freeman, executive director of the Napa County Local Agency Training Commission (LAFCO). If the proposal goes ahead, the commission would have the final say on whether to annex the property. “If you let this one go, who’s to say you don’t set off a domino effect and a whole bunch of other farmland ends up going to waste?”

Eve Kahn, co-chair of the environmental coalition Napa Vision 2050 and alternative member of LAFCO, said the annexation proposal might not have garnered so much attention a few years ago, but the intensification of Concerns about fires, drought and water have made it a bigger post.

“In the scheme of things and its location, you go, ‘ho-hum,'” Kahn said. “But we are already worried about losing some of our vineyards, so I think there is an increased awareness of environmental issues. There is more interest for the community to say: ‘We are a wine region and we must do everything we can to preserve that.’ »

Green Island also adjoins the Napa River Wetlands and a popular biking and walking trail.

A cyclist passes by the Green Island vineyard and piles of uprooted vines.

A cyclist passes by the Green Island vineyard and piles of uprooted vines.

Ethan Swope/The Chronicle

The owners of the vineyard, which was purchased in 1996, say the land is no longer viable for farming due to the high salinity of its soil, which they say has caused the death of the vines. For several years, they have uprooted two thirds of their vines; only 39 acres remain, which they say are also contaminated.

Those who oppose the rezoning plan are pushing for soil remediation or the planting of alternative crops, such as oats, hay and rye, which can grow in salty conditions but are not as lucrative as wine grapes.

“If the property is annexed, that means it’s okay to annex farmland if an owner’s expected crop yield doesn’t materialize,” said Ryan Klobas, CEO of the Napa County Farm Bureau.

The owners of Green Island – Ed Farver, former general manager of Jackson Family Wines; Will Nord, who started Napa Valley College’s viticulture program and owns a vineyard management company; and attorney David Gilbreth, who has represented many wineries, counters that remediation or replanting is not possible.

“There is no viable source of water to support farming and agriculture,” Gilbreth told The Chronicle. He also pointed to an analysis presented at a LAFCO hearing in June, where soil scientist Paul Anamosa said the vineyard is in a “death spiral” and economics expert Wenbiao Cai opined that the cultivation of the oats on the property would result in an annual loss of nearly $57,000. .

According to LAFCO’s Freeman, the annexation process is complicated and could take years. But the first major hurdle, the approval of Ballot Measure J, must be voted on in the November general election.

For the vineyard to be eligible for annexation, residents of American Canyon must pass an amendment to expand the city’s urban boundary — a boundary that marks the end of urban development in an area — to include Green Island Vineyards. Currently, the vineyard is bordered on three sides by this line. The ballot measure cites several potential benefits of its redevelopment, including job creation, tax revenue and improved transportation.

Opponents have suggested that the wording of Measure J is misleading and could push voters in favor of expanding the urban boundary. They dispute descriptors such as “rusty”, “vacant” and “undeveloped”, pointing out that there are 39 acres of vines still in the ground. The measurement also attributes soil salinity to “natural saltwater intrusion,” but during the LAFCO hearing, Anamosa’s analysis suggested the culprit was the city’s recycled water used to irrigation.

“From a good governance standpoint, it irritates me that what has been put in this order is totally misleading,” said annexation opponent Kahn. “People at American Canyon will probably say, ‘Hey, it’s not in my backyard, so it’s okay. Go put another warehouse.

As in many previous land use debates, proponents and opponents are bracing for what could be a long fight. The one that could be for nothing.

Even if Measure J fails, the push for Napa County farmland redevelopment will likely continue. Growing housing pressure could ultimately tip the scales, Freeman said.

For years, Napa Valley has struggled with affordable housing; according to Zillow, home values ​​in the area have increased 13% in the past year alone. This has exacerbated Napa Valley’s labor shortage by making it increasingly difficult for workers in the region’s wine, restaurant, and hospitality industries to live in Napa County.

The same wine industry groups fighting Green Island Vineyards are currently pushing for the site of a former school in the Carneros wine region to be repurposed for farm worker housing. Although not protected farmland, it is a sign that the industry recognizes housing as a pressing need, especially with an ongoing labor shortage.

And the county is compelled to act to create more housing. The Association of Bay Area Governments, which is responsible for allocating the state’s housing allocation in the Bay Area, has allocated more than 1,000 homes to Napa County, three times the amount required in previous allocations, Kahn said. The mission includes housing construction in rural areas and in the small towns of Calistoga, St. Helena and Yountville, and the plan is to be completed by January 31, 2023.

If these communities don’t find sites to build housing, they will be forced to implement a rezoning program and protected farmland may be the only option, suggested Kahn, who is also a real estate agent in Napa. One way or another, it looks like the precedent Napa agriculture industry groups fear will likely be set.

“I don’t know what the county is going to do to meet housing demands and at some point you would think there should be a rebalancing of priorities,” Freeman said. “It does appear that housing construction will take priority over preserving existing farmland and open space.”

Jess Lander is a staff writer for the San Francisco Chronicle. Email: [email protected]: @jesslander

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