Wednesday, October 12, 2016

[Napa County] Luce, Gregory discuss how to govern Napa’s wine world

Blog note: this article references a 2014-15 county grand jury report.
Incumbent Supervisor Mark Luce and challenger Ryan Gregory have various ideas on how Napa County should govern its world-famous wine industry with more than 400 brick-and-mortar wineries and counting.
They are vying in the Nov. 8 election for the 2nd District Napa Board of Supervisors seat that serves much of the western part of the city of Napa. They met Monday at the Napa Valley Marriott for a Napa Valley Vintners candidate forum.
Among the questions posed to them: when does the county’s agricultural land have enough wineries, enough visitors, enough vineyards?
Napa County has some of the toughest regulations in the world for its wine industry, Gregory said. Even if the county makes some small changes—which he favors—the process will continue to be complex and cost-prohibitive, he said.
“It’s just very difficult to do business here,” said Gregory, a civil engineer and vice president with the local firm RSA+.
For him, the next frontier is variances – exceptions granted by the county to its rules. Sometimes these exceptions allow wineries to be built in places where they otherwise wouldn’t be allowed.
“We’ve got to reel in variances,” Gregory said, adding this will create a level playing field.
He cares about Napa, he cares about the environment and he cares about the wine industry, Gregory added.
Luce, a five-term incumbent, said the answer to when Napa County has enough wineries hinges on the county’s 75-percent rule. All wineries built in agricultural areas since the early 1990s must use 75 percent Napa County grapes.
Processing local grapes is what justifies having wineries in the agricultural preserve and agricultural watershed, Luce said. Enough is enough when all the grapes are spoken for and it’s just too expensive to get into the game.
“That’s the hope, that the 75-percent rule works,” Luce said. “If it doesn’t work, we’re in a whole new world. Then what does decide when is enough enough and how do you control that? There are all kinds of plan Bs, but that gets into a very controversial discussion.”
The candidates discussed what Napa County must do to make certain wineries follow the rules. That issue was the topic of a 2014-15 county grand jury report.
Luce talked about the importance of wineries complying with the 75-percent rule. County rules and how wineries must report information to the county should be clear, so compliance is easy and routine, he said.
The next step is enforcement. He mentioned the Caymus Vineyards case that saw Caymus and county disagree over how much wine that winery could produce. The settlement involved Caymus paying the county a million dollars, and Luce said this amount might have been too small.
“The few bad actors are giving the whole industry a bad name,” Luce said. “We need to have the code enforcement activity to make sure people understand this isn’t going to be tolerated in the future. We need teeth so that the bite hurts.”
He doesn’t intend to be mean, Luce said. But the county’s past policy of gently coaxing wineries into compliance met with some wineries that had no intention of being in compliance.
Gregory said compliance is key. But this Board of Supervisors has created situations where the simplest use permits take two years to obtain and environmental impact reports — EIRs — are common.
“EIRs are like antibiotics—you overuse them, they don’t work so good,” Gregory said. “Not every project needs an EIR. So the cost of doing business here has escalated exponentially.”
Compliance comes with a responsibility from county government to create a better business climate, Gregory said.
Gregory also mentioned the case of minor use permit modifications, such as a winery needing more employees. The county must invent a way to handle “reasonable” requests that is less difficult and less expensive, he said.
Not only winery owners, but also tasting room and hospitality staff need to be trained on use permit compliance, he said.
The candidates considered what role “ancillary” uses should play at wineries, such as visitation and marketing. That hits at recent controversies of whether wineries in the agricultural preserve are becoming more like events centers.
During Luce’s 20 years of incumbency, the horse has left the barn, Gregory said.
Agricultural has to remain financially viable to remain the highest and best use of land, Gregory said. That requires wineries. Wineries now require visitation and marketing.
“I didn’t do that. That’s happened. I am inheriting that paradigm under which we need to support our legitimate businesses that have been created over the last 20 years,” Gregory said.
Successful businesses grow and evolve. Visitation is important. But Napa needs to codify more how it arrives at visitation limits for wineries, such as basing the numbers on the size of the building or infrastructure, Gregory said.
Luce embraced today’s Napa Valley and visitation so wineries can market directly to consumers.
“That horse that’s out of the barn, it’s a Triple Crown winner, because I think Napa is pretty much the envy of everywhere else in the world,” Luce said. “What we’ve been doing is not a bad thing, it’s a good thing.”
The issue is determining when marketing is related to wine — an ancillary use — and when is it over-the-top glitz, Luce said. Making that determinations is hard in a free market with creative people.
Still, he insisted on keeping ancillary uses focused on the marketing of wine.
Both candidates said they support Measure Z, the quarter-cent sales tax for the Napa County Regional Park and Open Space District on the Nov. 8 ballot. Gregory had previously not taken a position.
October 8, 2016
Napa Valley Register
By Barry Eberling

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