St. Helena Star Editorial

Eroded confidence produces flawed initiative


Measure C is a flawed ballot initiative that’s driven by a legitimate concern: an erosion of confidence in county government.

Since the formation of the Ag Preserve, Napa County has built a stellar record of environmental stewardship through some of the strictest land use regulations in the U.S. For decades, collaboration among residents, elected officials and members of the wine industry has resulted in clean water, sustainable farming practices and, as a recent study found, a healthy aquifer that recharges naturally.

However, that collaboration has begun to falter over the last 10 years. Stakeholders who used to work hand in hand have found themselves on opposite sides of the table as controversial vineyard projects like Walt Ranch are approved and then challenged in court, winery visitation and production limits go unenforced, and wineries receive nothing more than a slap on the wrist for flouting their use permits.

Residents have become rightfully frustrated with a county government that has failed over and over to prioritize the enforcement of its own meticulously crafted regulations. Unfortunately, those well-meaning residents have resorted to the initiative process to tackle a perceived threat to the county’s oak woodlands – not by tightening enforcement of already strict regulations, but by adding yet another layer of them.

Measure C would increase stream setbacks and impose new restrictions on the removal of oaks in the Ag Watershed district. The measure’s goal, which we applaud, is to protect our watersheds from erosion and other undesirable effects of converting oak woodlands to vineyards.

No reasonable person would oppose clean water, trees and healthy watersheds. But the initiative process is the wrong way to achieve those goals.

A county-commissioned report noted numerous ambiguities in the measure that would have to be settled in court. Experts who are passionate about conservation and enforcement, including Phill Blake and Dave Whitmer, say that many of the measure’s arbitrary regulations aren’t rooted in scientific fact and will be difficult or impossible to reconcile with the rules that are already on the books.

Worst of all, flaws that are discovered after the passage of Measure C, however small, could only be fixed by another countywide initiative. The ballot box is the wrong forum to be making technical tweaks. We fear that the county could get stuck with flawed regulations and unintended consequences, exacerbated by the same lack of enforcement that caused all this resentment in the first place.

Instead of an initiative, proponents should push the county to form an ag watershed and oak woodlands task force that would provide representation for all stakeholders and draft regulations that are legally vetted, reasonably adjustable, and grounded in science and technical data rather than emotion.

Over the last two weeks we’ve met with Measure C supporters Mike Hackett, Jim Wilson, Beth Novak Milliken and Warren Winiarski, and with opponents Stu Smith, Dave Whitmer and Jeri Hansen.

The supporters and opponents are all sincere and supremely well-intentioned people, and proponents deserve praise for working with representatives of wine industry groups who helped draft an early version of Measure C before withdrawing their support.

But opponents make a convincing case that, aside from Measure C’s technical shortcomings, the initiative process is poorly suited for tackling such a complex regulatory issue.

The county is responsible for the loss of confidence that produced Measure C. But the initiative process is the wrong method by which to restore that confidence, improve enforcement, protect our woodlands and watersheds, and represent the shared values of sustainable agriculture, environmental stewardship and countywide collaboration that have made the Napa Valley so special.

We urge you to weigh carefully the consequences of Measure C before casting your vote.