Napa County Winery Permitting in State of Flux
The Napa County Board of Supervisors has undertaken a series of major regulatory moves involving winery and vineyard permitting over the course of the past year. Critics of the various regulatory changes abound on all sides of the issues, with the board navigating a difficult path between wine industry, agricultural, environmental and anti-growth interests.
First, on Dec. 4, 2018, the board adopted Resolution No. 2018-164, generally referred to as the “Compliance Policy.” Among other items, the resolution created a March 29, 2018 deadline for applications to cure existing permitting nonconformance; a process to request a “status determination” of existing rights; and a mandatory winery production volume and grape source reporting program. As expected, this Compliance Policy has generated a greater than normal workload for the county, slowing the processing times for most use permit related applications. The Compliance Policy dictates that future applicants with operations exceeding their use permit limits will need to document compliance with existing use permit limitations for one year before any modification to their permit can be considered.
Second, the board passed the Water Quality and Tree Protection Ordinance (No. 1438) on April 9, 2019. A reaction to the narrow defeat of “Measure C” on the June 2018 ballot, the ordinance increased tree and vegetation retention and preservation requirements, tree mitigation ratios, established setbacks from municipal water supply reservoirs and wetlands, and provides for new stream setbacks for smaller order streams. New projects will need to address the additional limitations created by those rules. It remains to be seen how much impact the new rules will have on prospective development.
Third, with the pendulum swinging back towards permit holders and future applicants, the board at its April 23, 2019, meeting adopted Resolution No. 2019-53 to clarify the applicability of the county’s road and street standards. While in the past all use permit modifications triggered the need to comply with the most current driveway fire safe access standards, those standards have seen multiple updates making even relatively new wineries seeking a minor permit modification incur significant costs to upgrade access to the latest 22-foot width requirements. The policy change clarified that only a major modification to a use permit triggered the need for such roadway updates. This small but significant change makes requesting a minor modification to a use permit much more palatable to many applicants, since it avoids the sometime significant costs of constructing driveway improvements that were previously required for even minor operational changes or small remodeling projects.
And fourth, on May 21, 2019, as a continuation of the swing towards addressing project applicant concerns, the board debated and then directed the planning director to study changes to the use permit application and modification process, with an eye towards making permitting for small wineries easier, as well as clarifying what types of permit modifications fall within the minor and major modification categories. The development of new or revised rules in that regard is ongoing, and will continue to be evaluated by the board throughout the remainder of the year.
The true impact or benefit of these rule changes is not entirely clear at this point. But we can see the beginnings of the impacts of the Compliance Policy. Initial reporting in the North Bay Business Journal indicated that the Compliance Policy had generated significantly fewer applications than anticipated – 54 applications, including 33 for use permits and 21 for status determinations. The first key piece of the Compliance Policy – applications to update or conform activities to permit limits – are slowly working through the county’s planning process. The Compliance Policy provided an incentive that those that applied prior to the deadline could continue with their current operations while their applications are processed.
The second key Compliance Policy option – status determinations – have also been working their way through the County’s review process. ModernNapa county Use Permits are lengthy documents, containing a litany of generally-boilerplate standard conditions of approval, which are tailored to each permit as appropriate. Historic permits vary significantly however, with lesser detail than their modern brethren. This variation between older and newer use permits was one of the policy rationales for including this option as part of the Compliance Policy, as a winery owner may not be fully aware of how the county currently interprets its use permit. To allow for wineries to take advantage of this process, the Compliance Policy provided a tolling of the deadline to submit an application for winery owners who applied for a status determination prior to the March 29, 2018 application deadline. This resulted in an extension of time to file a use permit modification, with the Compliance Policy’s benefits of continuing current operations. Once the owner receives the county’s interpretation of its permit, it can then determine what if any use permit modification for which it might want to apply. As those status determinations are issued, additional applications for modifications of use permits are certain to be submitted. While the status determinations have not been released publicly, we have seen the county consistently opine that the operations approved by a use permit include only those anticipated in the applications for those permits, and additionally limited by the specific conditions in the permit approval documentations.
The last component of the Compliance Policy is the mandatory wine volume and grape source reporting requirement, which as with the other deadlines has seen its stated beginning date of July 1, 2019 come and go with no such program being actually implemented. However, this mandatory reporting program is being developed by the county and when ultimately adopted will require submission of documentation setting forth the volume of wine produced and the source of grapes used in that production at each Napa winery. The mandatory volume and grape source reporting policy is slated to trigger an inspection and full evaluation of all permit compliance if that reporting shows a violation of either limit. The promise of such an inspection may have encouraged voluntary applications to cure existing issues, especially if the recent larger than average harvests caused a production limit exceedance. However, that policy has yet to actually be implemented, and it remains to be seen when it will be put into practice.
In sum, there have been a number of developments that have put the focus on winery permitting in Napa county over the last year. The landscape is likely to change further as additional permitting process changes are evaluated and debated, and the mandatory reporting process goes into effect. Napa county wineries need to stay alert: operating conditions are subject to sudden change.
2 With some limited exceptions for wineries not in Agricultural Preserve or Agricultural Watershed zoning districts, or not subject to the 75% Napa County grape source rule, which do not need to provide grape source data. Volume reporting requirements still apply to all wineries however.
Authored by Joshua S. Devore.
© 2019 North Bay Business Journal. Reproduction in any form prohibited without permission. • Reprint from August 26, 2019 Pages 14 & 15