Napa County Splits On Measure C

Ballot measure would place additional planning restrictions to protect watershed

by Stacy Briscoe
Measure C has divided voters in Napa County and even raised tensions between mountain growers who feel their rights are being undermined by valley floor growers who support the measure.

Napa, Calif.—A controversial measure that would likely impede further vineyard development in Napa County held a slim 42 vote lead after mail-in ballots had been counted.

Final results from the June 5 election may not be available until a few days at least, and both sides in the debate are not claiming victory just yet.

“The Napa County Farm Bureau and all of Napa County’s agricultural organizations came together to oppose Measure C because it is too confusing,” said Ryan Klobas, policy director for Napa County Farm Bureau and spokesman for the No on C campaign, in an email to Wines & Vines, following the election.

Call it confusing, call it controversial, either way Measure C is an issue that has split the county nearly in half, with the current count separated by just 42 votes: 7,191 in favor and 7,149 against, according to Napa County’s unofficial election report published at 10:39pm on June 5. Early results were based on more than 14,000 mail-in ballots.

If Measure C does pass, the Watershed and Oak Woodland Protection Initiative,
would allow the removal of up to 795 acres of woodlands in land zoned “agricultural watershed.” After that limit is reached, removal of additional trees would require a permit and every tree cut would need to be replaced by three more trees, according to the measure.

Protecting trees for water quality
Mike Hackett, co-author of the measure, said preserving oak trees means promoting water conservation. He estimates that about 70% of the valley floor, where most of Napa’s agriculture lay, benefits from the flow of the agricultural watershed. “Trees capture rain, feed it into the permeable layer — the macro pores — entering the aquafers that go directly into the valley floor,” he said. “If we take great care of our hillsides, our tree-d hillsides, we will continue to have a sustainable water supply for our agriculture and our community.”

St. Helena mayor Alan Galbraith agrees and officially supported Measure C. “The city (of St. Helena) operates Bell Canyon Reservoir, which has been deeply impacted by ag run off,” said Gilbraith in an interview, explaining that the 3,657-acre reservoir is the primary source of drinking water for the city of St. Helena.

He said because Measure C includes a buffer zone around the watershed’s creeks and streams (25 feet to 125 feet from streams and 150 feet from any wetland, according to the measure) from which trees could not be removed or new structures built, this will help protect the city’s drinking water from chemical and sediment loading.

Hackett said that when he and co-author, Jim Wilson, first drafted the initiative, they did so alongside the Napa Valley Vintners. However, as Klobas stated, all of the county’s agricultural organizations are in opposition, including the Napa Valley Vintners that in an official statement declared: “The initiative, as written, is legally uncertain. The board believes there may be unintended consequences for agriculture if it becomes law,” and that “the majority of…NVV members conveyed opposition.”

Speaking to vintners in opposition, one can hear the frustration and, in some cases, downright anger at what the measure will do to Napa’s local wine industry and community.

Stuart Smith, general partner and enologist at Smith-Madrone Winery in Napa, Calif. is one such vintner, and has even set up a blog discussing both his moral and professional issues with Measure C. (stopmeasurec.com).

“People believe that Measure C will provide water for them, therefore it’s pro-ag,” Smith told Wines & Vines. “But if I own land in the woodlands, now I don’t have a right to agriculture.”

Smith’s argument is that those vintners in favor of the measure, are only thinking of their wineries along the valley floor and are excluding those who are making wine — or want to make wine — in Napa’s mountains.

‘Breakdown of morality’
He calls this county battle a “breakdown of morality” in which some growers are benefiting while others lose. “(The supporting vintners) taking land rights for their benefits,” Smith said. “They don’t own any oak woodlands, they give up nothing, but they are taking from the oak woodlands the water they want from the oak woodlands.”

Smith also pointed out the recent fires that spread across wine country this past October, arguing that if Measure C passes, the oak woodlands will eventually become too dense because there will be no motivation to clear forests and no vineyard breaks. Wildfires will only become more likely and more common.

All that being said, Smith acknowledges that the “yes people” have done a good job in their campaign. “In writing they were able to define an argument and made it extremely emotional — who wouldn’t want to save trees and water?”

Though supporters are currently ahead by those 40-plus votes, Hackett said they’re not celebrating just yet. “What we are celebrating is the democratic process, our volunteers, and that we’ve rallied a fact-based campaign.”

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