Stu’s Letters

Sticking it to landowners isn’t the answer

by Stuart Smith, Napa Valley Register, March 9, 2018

The only issue that Frank Hawkins and I agree upon is that property rights are not unlimited. See “Threatening our water security should be Illegal” (March 7). Taking property rights by force of the ballot box is, in my opinion, immoral and should be resisted. Measure C is a classic example of “Tyranny of the Majority” that was so feared by the likes of John Locke, Alexis de Tocqueville, James Madison and John Stuart Mill. It strikes at the very heart of democracy.

There is no doubt that the reason Measure C was created was to take the property rights from the owners of the oak woodlands so that Measure C supporters can have more water for themselves. This creates a subservient category of property that exists expressly for the benefit of others. In essence this land is now a servant, a slave, if you will, to the larger community. I believe this is a dangerous concept and is a perversion of our understanding of zoning.

If a community-wide problem exists then all members of that community should equally bear the burden of fixing it. Sticking it to a smallish group of landowners is not the democratic way to solve our community’s problems. We should be better than this.

Stuart Smith

St. Helena

Explain the philosophy and science of Measure C

by Stuart Smith, April 13, 2018, Napa Valley Register

Oh, those pesky property rights! Didn’t we finally get rid of them somewhere back in the ’60s? Or was it the ’70s?

No, property rights are not dead yet, and therein lies the problem with Measure C. In fact, the Ag Preserve, the initiative process, due process, property rights, taxes, democracy and the basic values America was founded upon are all mangled together into the issues of Measure C. Let’s examine the fundamental injustice of Measure C.

The Ag Preserve came about because in the mid-1960s California started taxing property at its highest and best value. Instead of a 5-acre orchard being taxed as such, it was now taxed as a subdivided parcel capable of 15 homes or more. The high taxes were literally forcing folks to sell their properties in order to pay the taxes. Here was a huge incentive to convert farmland to housing developments.

To avoid this and protect Napa’s goal that agriculture is the highest and best use of the land, the leadership of Napa County created a work-around to this threat by using the new Williamson Act and in 1968 the Board of Supervisors created the nation’s first Agricultural Preserve. Napa farmers gave up the right to subdivide into small parcels for protection from insanely high taxation.

For more than 10 years, the California State Legislature was dismissive of vocal and organized criticism of these taxes until Proposition 13 rolled back how property was assessed. Proposition 13 is a classic example of why California has the initiative process. Initiatives are considered a safety valve, the court of the last resort, for when government is unresponsive to the people’s wishes.

Proposition 13 did not take anything from the people or any subset of the people. Prop. 13 limited the ability of the State of California to tax the people. This is “direct democracy” by the people, unlike our normal “representative democracy,” which is the American system.

Our founders were wary of direct democracy and wanted to avoid it because it allows a majority of voters to trample the rights of minorities. James Madison was especially worried about the “Tyranny of the Majority” and pushed hard to make the new government of America a “representative democracy.”

Direct democracy can have a very dark side to it when the majority puts their own interests above those in the minority. Imagine three wolves and a sheep deciding what to have for dinner. The sheep objects to the selection, but the wolves console the sheep that it was a fair election — it was democracy after all — and the sheep lost.

Measure C is no different in principle than all previous historical oppressions of minority groups. If Measure C passes, the majority will take property rights from a minority for their own benefit. Unlike Prop. 13 where the farmers got tax relief for putting their land in the Ag Preserve, Measure C just takes the property rights from the oak woodlands owners and gives nothing in return.

The rationale for Measure C is to protect the oak woodlands and watershed as a source for more and cleaner water. In Mike Hackett’s Nov. 28, 2017 letter to the editor, he states “We will be sharing the science …” that led to creating Measure C.”

I attended the March 12 Measure C Forum promising to “focus on the science” that underlies the Measure. Instead, the forum was a love fest for Measure C, and did not provide any science to justify the measure. An arborist is not an expert in silviculture, which deals with the science of managing our forests; for that we needed a forester and none was in attendance.

Dr. Comendant, an expert on watersheds, provided no science that justifies larger stream setbacks and she refused to support the claim that there’d be more water if Measure C passed. So, Mike, we’re still waiting for that science.

With the just released “Napa County Groundwater Sustainability Annual Report – Water Year 2017,” the very foundation for justifying Measure C crumbled. This scientific report states unequivocally that the Napa Valley Groundwater Basin is stable and full and has been stable over the last several decades.

The problematic area of the Milliken-Sarco-Tulucay subarea is reported to have stabilized and now has increasing water levels due in part to new county policies.

We should also remember that the Napa River was delisted by the State Water Board for nutrients in 2014. The Napa River is cleaner today than it has been in the last 75 years.

To Mike Hackett and Jim Wilson, the proponents of Measure C, I issue this challenge:

1) Explain why it is morally acceptable to take property rights from the owners of the oak woodlands to advance your personal agenda.

2) Provide the science you promised that justifies Measure C.

Stuart Smith

St. Helena

Opposed to Measure C Oak Woodlands Initiative

by Stuart Smith, March 7, 2018, Napa Valley Register

I oppose Measure C, the Oak Woodlands Initiative, because it discriminates against an entire group of stakeholders. It is ill-conceived and poorly drafted. It is a perversion of the initiative process and is anti-agriculture in a right-to-farm county.

The authors, Mike Hackett and Jim Wilson, want us to believe that if we don’t protect “our watersheds” the people of Napa County will run out of water. Here is an existential threat, they argue, to our very existence. This need is so dire that the authors and their supporters are justified in seizing the watershed rights of others so that they can have more water. With the collective use of “our watersheds” shouldn’t there also be the collective use of “our shared responsibility?” If a great financial burden is to be borne for the good of the community, shouldn’t we all bear this burden equally? Placing this entire burden on a small group is not fair nor equitable. Yet neither the authors nor their supporters have ever expressed any concern for the plight of those who will bear this burden, nor a willingness to share it. When government takes your land for a public use, they must pay the fair market price for it. With Measure C, the rights of the watershed owners will be – well – just taken!

I reject the basic premise of the proponents that by stopping new vineyards and virtually stopping all cutting of oak trees it will increase water availability downstream. It is an indisputable fact that if Measure C passes, the oak woodlands will become overgrown and will, with time, use more water and thus, release less water into the creeks and rivers when it’s needed most. This is the exact opposite of the goal of Measure C. Additionally, those now overgrown oak forests will have a much greater fuel load so when the next wildlands fire gets cracking those forests will burn hotter and be more destructive.

The initiative process was never intended to be a first step in changing our regulations; it was intended to be the last. Yet Hackett and Wilson never went to the Board of Supervisors to ask for additional protection for oak woodlands. Most importantly, they never held public meetings with diverse stakeholders, especially the watershed owners, to explore ideas, find compromise and come to a consensus. Fairness and property rights are basic American values: We should NOT subvert those values by supporting this poorly conceived initiative.

Mr. Hackett and Mr. Wilson, I submit that it is you, and your supporters, not us, who should be called “greedy” for trying to take something from others without their permission. Our existing vineyards are exempted from this initiative, and by supporting the initiative and limiting new vineyards, we would make our vineyards more valuable. Yet we reject that option and defend the watershed owners and their rights. The Napa Valley Grapegrowers, the Winegrowers of Napa County, the Napa County Farm Bureau, Coalition Napa Valley and the Napa Valley Vintners believe in the fair treatment of others, property rights and due process. I stand with these groups: We choose principle over greed and oppose Measure C.

Stuart Smith

St. Helena


County officials have protected the environment

by Stuart Smith, January 23, 2018, Napa Valley Register

One of many initiatives on this June’s ballot will be the Oak Woodlands Initiative created by Mike Hackett and Jim Wilson, who obviously believe, like Chicken Little, that the sky is falling.

The fundamental premise of their initiative is that our Board of Supervisors can no longer be trusted to protect the environment and the situation has become so dire that the people must step up and take control. While Hackett and Wilson give lip service to 50 years of nationally recognized environmental and land use leadership by our supervisors, the initiative itself is proof of their true beliefs and intentions.

The initiative will regulate some 165,000 acres of Napa County’s “Oak Woodlands” by requiring permits to cut just one oak tree five inches in diameter or larger and a “Use Permit” to cut ten or more oak trees in any one year. These permits will only be issued if a “finding” for removal is consistent with an extremely narrow set of “standards and policies” which excludes agriculture. Oak trees can be removed for agriculture provided “… the parcel is a minimum of 160 acres, and …. allows removal of no more than five oak trees from that parcel during any ten year period” (underlining added). The initiative will stop, forever, new vineyard plantings in the oak woodlands.

If you believe, as I do, that Napa County’s supervisors have done a good job in protecting the environment, while supporting agriculture and balancing the needs of our economy, then vote against the initiative as being completely unnecessary and an utter waste of our time and resources.

If on the other hand, you believe that the supervisors have done a terrible job of protecting the environment, that our county is an ugly sore of environmental degradation and agree with Hackett and Wilson there is an “urgent need for solutions” (“Citizens and science take the long view for sustainability of Napa Valley,” Nov. 28, 2017), and “Half-way measures are no longer acceptable … (and) We need a revolution in both thought and deed …” (“Napa County needs real climate protection commitments,” July 1, 2017), then vote for their initiative as a last resort to save the environment.

I believe that that our supervisors and their staff should be trusted to continue their leadership role over our oak woodlands. The beauty that is Napa County is undeniable, and it didn’t just happen by accident. Give credit to the Ag Preserve, the Winery Definition Ordinance and Conservation Ordinance for being the first of their kind in the nation.

Then there is the Napa County General Plan, The Napa River Watershed Taskforce, the Napa County Oak Woodlands Management Plan, APAC, all illustrating more commendable supervisor leadership.

Yet this initiative is a referendum on 50 years of job performance by the Napa County Board of Supervisors, the planning commissioners and planning directors.

Help protect agriculture and our public planning process by joining the Napa Valley Grapegrowers, the Napa County Farm Bureau, the Winegrowers of Napa County, the Napa Valley Vintners, and Coalition Napa Valley in rejecting this initiative.

Stuart Smith

St. Helena


Napa Valley Vintners are tone deaf when it comes to land-use politics

by Stuart Smith, September 20, 2017, Napa Valley Register

As a marketing organization, the Napa Valley Vintners (NVV) does an excellent job, and is of great value to our industry and our valley. But they’re tone deaf when it comes to land-use politics, generally taking the wrong side and causing consternation within our community.

As marketers, the NVV seeks to be on the side of the politically correct. Others believe that reasonable regulations and long-term economic viability are more important than short-term marketing gains. As a past NVV director and 1986 Wine Auction chairman, I quit NVV years ago over their poorly conceived land-use positions. Once again, NVV has gone off the political rails over land use.

Their proposed solution in search of a problem is called the “Watershed & Oak Woodlands Initiative” (Napa Valley Register “Watershed initiative is reborn,” Sept. 10). If this initiative is approved, new vineyards in the oak woodlands will be prohibited, buffer zones up to 125 feet wide will be required along water courses and a County permit will be required to cut any oak over 5 inches in diameter and a County “Use Permit” will be required for cutting 10 or more oaks.

NVV has lost its moral compass. It’s crucial to note that the initiative exempts all existing vineyards and the replanting of all vineyards. The most affected by this initiative are those who haven’t already developed their vineyard, property or home. NVV wants to award itself a big shiny Environmental Merit Badge, not for the hard work and sacrifice of its members, but for the sacrifice to be made by those non-exempted landowners. Clearly the NVV learned from the old political adage “Don’t tax you, don’t tax me – tax that guy behind the tree.”

When you encounter vintners or growers who support this initiative, ask them if their vineyard, home or barn is set back from the top of any stream bank by 125 feet as this initiative requires for new development in the Ag Watershed … or are they exempted?

If we espouse environmentalism, shouldn’t we all, without exception, do our part for the environment? Forcing others to do what you are not willing to do yourself is morally repugnant, yet that is exactly what NVV is proposing with this Initiative.

I cannot understand how four NVV representatives, led by Linda Reiff, president of NVV, think they can secretly negotiate this initiative with two members from Vision 2050 and not realize the harm they’ve done to our industry, their organization and themselves.

On Sept. 1, the NVV filed this proposed ballet initiative with Napa County and then waited four days before informing their members. The NVV’s 525 members were never informed nor asked for input before the NVV submitted the initiative. This process was underhanded for sure, poor governance by any standard and utterly unprofessional.

It is especially disturbing that no stakeholders representing oak woodlands property or hillside vineyardists were present to add insight and defend their rights. Additionally, the Wine Growers, the Grapegrowers and the Farm Bureau were also excluded and lied to by omission, thus bringing into question issues of trust and integrity that may jeopardize any future NVV cooperation amongst these groups. Maybe if a more diverse group of stakeholders had been involved the folly of trying to placate Vision 2050 would have been avoided.

I oppose this initiative because it’s not good for Napa County nor the Napa wine industry. Initiatives are an important tool when government fails to do its job correctly. That is not the case in Napa County. We have a beautiful valley with some of the most environmentally sensitive farmers anywhere in the world. The Napa River is one of the cleanest and most diverse rivers in Northern California because of the wine industry’s stewardship.

Oak tree protection is not needed because any conversion of land to vineyard must obtain an Erosion Control Plan permit, which allows county planners to review all relevant environmental issues.

While development of new homes and buildings will not be prohibited, the initiative will markedly increase costs in those areas containing even a few oak trees. Requiring a county permit to cut down a single oak 5 inches in diameter is ridiculous. Requiring a “Use Permit” costing thousands of dollars to cut 10 oaks or more in one year on your property is ludicrous.

Napa County is a “right-to-farm” county, and if this initiative passes, it will dramatically curtail the growth of our wine industry by prohibiting new vineyards in the oak woodlands and may weaken the longstanding public resolve that Napa County agriculture is the highest and best use of the land.

I am asking that NVV members reconsider what is in the best long-term interest of our valley and our wine industry and withdraw this ill-conceived and divisive initiative.

Stuart Smith

St. Helena