Thursday, February 9, 2017

In the last resort (Koch brothers, et al)

                                                     Dispatch: St. Helena
                                         The Private I

     The city of St. Helena, Napa County, put out a Request for Proposals for resorts/hotels to be developed on city properties, basically saying "we're broke and we need to do this." There was a special city council meeting back in October, when several plans were revealed. One was by the HRV group mentioned in an earlier dispatch which included investors John Pritzker (formerly Hyatt Hotels), proprietor of his own international hotel management company, Commune, and the Koch brothers.
    Providing construction financing was, once again, Hall Structured Finance. They all hoped to develop a three-story 85 room hotel overlooking St. Helena's Main Street and our city's Lyman Park, using the site of our current police department and city hall and extending a block eastward to append our fire department and eliminate parking spaces for our volunteer fire fighters. (
     Residents were quite shocked by this one. Even though we don't permit "brand" or "formula" operations, HRV had the audacity to invest quite a sum in sketches of what this might look like. That's not you swimming in a public pool (below) but guests at a luxury resort enjoying what is essentially co-oped public space on the right. 

     I suppose some people view themselves as so privileged they can ignore the law at every level. As a St. Helena resident I have little doubt that they believed they had some type of political cover.
    This project effectively went away when State Parks weighed in with a letter to the city invoking their authority under U.S. Department of Interior to remind the city our Lyman Park is in fact a State Park. The city adopted  a resolution last month recognizing this and agreeing, among other things, not to limit access to the park. This effectively killed the Hall-related project which would have blocked off one entire side of the park. In the proposal HRV Hotel Partners refers to St. Helena as "our town." 
    Not kidding.

    With the change in the city council we now have Mary Koberstein and Geoff Ellsworth replacing at least one pro-resort council member, and with Paul Dohring there is a good chance the other two projects proposed for our Adams Street property will also go away. This is thanks to a law disallowing council members who intend to represent their resident constituents.
    There are any number of issues beginning to surface about water and its availability down the road, so I think the council will be much more cautious and will recognize our no growth initiative and General Plan to put a halt to this nonsense of trying to develop four or five hotels. Peculiar things have been happening in the water rates area, but let's see if any news comes out about this.

Monday, February 6, 2017

Wine was once the valley's preserver.

      A reader takes exception to my previous statement that Napa today is primarily about tourism: 
    I don’t think it’s really desire for tourists that is driving wineries to want fancier tasting rooms, more events and more visitation. It’s for customers. While I might question why Napa Valley needs any more wineries, the only way they can sell wine is to start with attracting people to their tasting rooms.
    Certainly, building vineyards in the hills isn’t aimed at tourists. It’s to produce more expensive wines to sell. So I’d argue that marketing is driving development as much as tourism, though obviously the visitors have to eat and to have a place to stay.
    I think strict enforcement of existing laws coupled with setting a higher bar to establishing new wineries would do a lot to help. Like a minimum of 40 acres, and making wines from vineyards on site or perhaps owned by the winery owner. Of course, the nuclear option would to to kill grandfathering of old practices.

      Yes, allowing old practices once used to sell most anything is now an anachronism, and worse: a fundament of anti-agricultural tourism and the means by which to power wine purchasing. If that wasn't the case, there wouldn't be so much new development. Buying wine provides the visitor with both a reason, and an excuse, to visit spas, restaurants, etc., and as a package is the quintessence of tourism, not agriculture.
   Cutting trees on hillsides to put in more vineyards for selling more expensive wine to visitors is an integral part of the new Napa. This is not in the interest of a place under permanent environmental stress, nor a contributor to the health and happiness of an extended community trying to survive as such, rather than as a platform for yet more marketing.
   The sad irony is that wine, once the preserver of the valley from development, has devolved into the primary driver of its possible destruction.

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Sunday, February 5, 2017

"The wine industry may be putting land at risk"

                                      Because it's all tourism now 

From the Napa Register, by Barry Eberling

Among Bay Area counties, Napa County has the lowest amount of land at risk for what the Greenbelt Alliance calls “sprawl” development, though the group also sees cause for concern.
The San Francisco-based Greenbelt Alliance released its latest “At Risk: The Bay Area Greenbelt” report last week. It concluded 458 square miles is at risk of sprawl development across the Bay Area over the next 30 years, an area roughly 10 times the size of San Francisco.
Napa County, by contrast, has 15.7 square miles at risk over 30 years, an area slightly smaller than the city of Napa. Only 1.2 square miles is considered to be at risk over 10 years, an area slightly smaller than Yountville.
Greenbelt Alliance North Bay Regional Director Teri Shore doesn’t want success to breed complacency.
“Overall, Napa County has had strong greenbelt and open space protection measures, particularly for the ag land, for many decades,” Shore said. “At the same time, things are changing. There are potential development threats to our land and open space in Napa.”
She called the At Risk report a report card on how the Bay Area is protecting its greenbelt for the long-term. The report looks at eight Bay Area counties and leaves out the ninth county, San Francisco, because most of its land is either developed or protected.
Napa County has laws to protect its famous vineyards, among them requiring a two-thirds popular vote to remove land from agriculture, the report said. But the success of the wine industry may be putting land at risk.
The longstanding threat of large-scale event centers and resorts being built on Napa County farmland has grown “acute,” the report said. They pave land with new buildings and roads and put new demands on groundwater, it said.
“The county is debating the issue with no resolution in sight,” the report said.
One thing the report didn’t do is define when a winery becomes an event center. Supervisor Diane Dillon doesn’t think Napa County has crossed that line.
“I don’t see them as event centers,” Dillon said. “The primary focus is still as wineries. We limit the amount of floor space that is available for marketing. It is not the majority of the building.”
The ongoing Napa County debate is really about defining the issues, Dillon said. Until that happens, the county can’t work on the resolutions.

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Napa County’s “most alarming threat” is the possibility that 850-acre Skyline Wilderness Park might someday be sold for development, possibly even for mining, the At Risk report said. Skyline Park is located along Imola Avenue southeast of the city of Napa.
The county leases 850 acres from the state for the park and has an agreement until Feb. 19, 2030. But the state wants the county to repeal a Skyline zoning overlay that removes development potential.
Dorothy Glaros, president of the Skyline Park Citizens Association, said last week that the park as it exists today could disappear once the lease agreement expires in 13 years.
Establishing a permanent buffer between the park and Syar quarry would help, Glaros said. Perhaps the best protection would be if the state renews the Skyline lease for another 50 years, she said.
Car-dependent sprawl development is not the answer to the region’s affordable housing crisis, the report said.

“We can accommodate people, housing and jobs within our existing footprints,” Shore said.
Several local infill housing projects are planned, among them at the former Napa Valley Register building site near downtown Napa. Napa County wants higher-density homes built on its former Health and Human Services Agency site along Old Sonoma Road in Napa.
The Greenbelt Alliance from time to time takes positions on specific Napa County issues. For example, it endorsed the recent, failed Measure Z open space tax measure and in 2012 endorsed the Napa Pipe development.
Former U.S. Sen. Barbara Boxer in the forward to “At Risk” praised the Greenbelt Alliance for 59 years of work.
“This report continues that legacy by taking a closer look at every threat to this region’s magnificent landscapes and providing the kind of information decision-makers need to shape smart policy,” Boxer said.
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Thursday, February 2, 2017

Eat: Madison, Wisconsin

         You might not guess that on one side of “the square” in Madison, Wis., from the state capital is a gourmandizing gem called Field Table. Here’s what they say about themselves: Daily menus, natural wines, craft cocktails, beers, and coffee in a warm, lively and light-filled setting. Our all-day corner farmers' market includes take away bowls, salads, sandwiches, plus fresh organic produce, select artisan cheese, baked goods and kitchen essentials…
    But the glory’s in the imaginative detail in both food and drink, and in the feel of the place. Very impressive list of spirits, wine, and inspired cocktails in an age when the competition’s steep in all those departments.
    For lunch with my daughter, Jess, on the faculty of the Nelson Institute of Environmental Studies at nearby UW, I reluctantly passed up that egg sandwich and the Forest Bowl (roasted mushrooms, kale, lentils, pine nuts and cauliflower) for a burger riding high on a sesame bun and caramelized onions, hoisin, and fried peppers.
    Dinner’s an even bigger deal, with a full complement of local beers from a state that values them, and overall a bright, airy scene with a hybrid historic, knife-edge ambience all its own.                               

    And across town, on Monroe Street, is the reigning celtic outpost, Brocach Irish Pub, with - yes - corned beef, fish n’ chips, and Guinness on tap. Plus fine live Irish music every Friday night.

Monday, January 23, 2017

Eat (and look): Manhattan

    This is the Francophile version of the enduringly popular Eataly but even further downtown. Next door to the new 9/11 museum, it has a view of the Hudson River and a "concept" identical to that of Eataly, just with different handles for national comestible celebrations, i.e. rotisserie, fromage, patisserie, Bar de Vin, etc. I started with New Brunswick raw oysters, a glass of Stella Artois (okay, it's Belgian), and duck leg rillette. Then an amble among various stalls, petite cup of dense black coffee in hand.                                                                              
     Uptown by subway to the Metropolitan Museum and five hours of looking at literally any representative art you fancy, from ancient Greece to Native American masterpieces to women's fashion. I was struck most by the Ojibwe bags from the shores of Lake Superior.
 and a dress of slats inspired by Cubism that instantly called to mind Marcel Duchamp's 1912 Nude Descending a Staircase.
    Dinner was Italian - at Grazie in East 84th, just blocks from the Met: octopus, striped bass, Dolcetto. Basta.

Wednesday, January 18, 2017

Napa Valley vintners take the low road. Go figure.

   This does not bode well for the future.
         Says Dan Mufson, head of Napa Vision 2050:  "The vintners have come out of the grass (vines?) and are showing their true colors—bullying and dismissive. It’s remarkable that an industry that sells sophistication has taken to such maffioso tactics...2017 is shaping up to be a most interesting year."
    One possible outcome's a boycott of both the Vintners' members and the restaurant that allows itself to be intimidated.

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Wednesday, January 11, 2017

Napa struggle wins best short documentary in L.A. festival

The initiative to save trees and water, torpedoed by the county, rises again:                                                               

Saturday, January 7, 2017

From sea to shining sea

The Washington Post references Vanishing America.

The Chesapeake watershed’s countryside is being replaced by ‘mallside’

Sprawl in the Chesapeake Bay watershed, despite efforts at “smart growth,” continues at an unprecedented rate. Growth occurs principally along transportation corridors; the main culprit is the federal highway system, which has been the silent ally of real estate development and urban sprawl. 
Interstate 81 in Maryland, West Virginia and Pennsylvania has seen the growth of exurban developments, often with populations far larger than the town or village with which they share a Zip code. Increasingly, “countryside” is being replaced by “mallside,” with homogenized stores from coast to coast. 
In Virginia and West Virginia, sheep and cattle farms have given way to burgeoning neighborhoods of commuters who clog country roads and drive two hours each way to their workplaces. 
The orchard belt of the Chesapeake that once included hundreds of peach and apple farms in Pennsylvania, Maryland and Virginia is being swallowed by development, noticeably on Maryland’s Eastern Shore. Land is worth far more than the fruit it produces. As the suburbs spread outward in all directions from Washington and Baltimore, farmland is increasingly in demand for development. 
But our countryside is not alone in being transformed out of existence. The U.S. Geological Survey says our rivers and seascapes are being changed by pollution and deforestation. The connectivity of wetlands, forest and wildlife habitat is being ruined through loss of vegetation and open space. Small wonder that suburbanites are surprised at finding hungry black bears foraging in their garbage and deer eating their flowers.
The once-sleepy docks lined with oyster-packing houses in Crisfield, Md., give way to fancy, expensive high-rise condominiums owned by people who neither care about nor understand the local maritime culture and what is being lost.
Throughout the Chesapeake watershed, collectors are scooping up the remnants of Maryland’s oyster industry: packing cans, dredges, photographs, shucking tools. What was once a vibrant industry on the Chesapeake has succumbed to disease, pollution, overharvesting and development. Hundreds of packing houses from Kent Island, Md., to Oyster, Va., have disappeared. Oysters, which sold for $1.50 a gallon in 1974, now sell for more than that each in D.C. restaurants. Soon, people will have difficulty trying to understand why a town in Maryland was named Bivalve.
In the middle of the Shenandoah Valley or up the Susquehanna River, one can get into traffic jams that resemble urban gridlock.
It is neither change nor technology that threatens our lifestyle. It is political power, the force of domination. When a Chesapeake waterman finds his crabs or oysters overwhelmed by toxins and effluents unleashed by corporations, he feels the rough hand of lobbyists who have worked behind the scenes to rewrite the sanitation laws. When orchard owners discover that their aquifer is being hijacked by new zoning regulations and developments so that they can’t irrigate their trees in summer during drought, they feel the blunt instrument of real estate interests that want to grow money rather than crops.
John Wennersten is author of “The Chesapeake: An Environmental Biography” and emeritus professor of history at the University of Maryland at Eastern Shore.
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Tuesday, January 3, 2017

From the man who also brought us "boobgeoisie"

    H.L. Mencken, to wit. And way back in 1920 he had this to say: 
"As democracy is perfected, the office of president represents, more and more closely, the inner soul of the people. On some great and glorious day the plain folks of the land will reach their heart's desire at last and the White House will be adorned by a downright moron."

Sunday, January 1, 2017

U.S. attorney fingers Napa man

The Niagara Gazette published the story below about criminal charges brought against Louis Ciminelli in New York. He's also involved in a controversial timber removal plan in the mountains above Napa Valley:

TOP 10: Local developer faces charges in Buffalo Billion probe (No. 5)

Dec. 27 from staff reports:

In news that shocked the region on Sept. 22, a high-profile developer and political power player was brought to U.S. District Court in Buffalo to face charges of wire fraud and bribery.
Louis P. Ciminelli, along with two other LPCiminelli development company executives, has been accused of paying an Albany lobbyist $100,000 to rig the bidding process for the $750 million Solar City complex construction project, a part of the Buffalo Billion program.
Charged along with Ciminelli, were prominent Pendleton resident Kevin Schuler, a senior vice president with the company, and Michael Laipple, LPCiminelli’s Infrastructure Division president.
Also charged in the indictment on Sept. 22 were Alain Kaloyeros, the former president of SUNY Polytechnic Institute, Joseph Percoco, the former executive deputy secretary to Gov. Andrew Cuomo, Syracuse energy company executive Peter Galbraith Kelly Jr., and Syracuse developers Steven Aiello and Joseph Gerardi.
The indictments followed a year-long investigation by agents in the FBI’s Buffalo Field Office, along with investigators from the office of Preet Bharara, U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York.
“(The) complaint sheds a light on the sordid ‘Show me the money’ culture in Albany,” Bharara said. “(It was) hundreds of thousands of dollars in bribes for hundreds of millions of dollars in business.”
Bharara acknowledged the role of the media in the investigation, highlighting the work of Investigative Post, a partner organization to the Niagara Gazette that is led by longtime investigative journalist Jim Heaney and a small staff of dedicated reporters.
“That case got started because journalists in Buffalo and elsewhere started to write that there were shenanigans they believe that were going on with the bidding of contracts in Buffalo,” Bharara said. “And you know what we did? We started to investigate.”
All eight men pleaded not guilty to a 14-count indictment in federal court on Nov. 22.
Percoco was Cuomo’s executive deputy secretary and one of his most loyal advisers.
The Democratic governor is not accused of wrongdoing.
Cuomo, who has denied any knowledge of the alleged corruption, has said, “… this is a profoundly sad situation for me personally. Now the justice system must take its course, and any of those found guilty of abusing the public’s trust should and will be punished.”
The government says evidence including about 2 million pages of documents will be ready for defense review in early 2017.
Percoco’s attorney says it’s unclear how long it will take to prepare for trial.
Ciminelli’s defense attorney, Daniel Oliverio, said his client did nothing wrong.
“These allegations are a complete mischaracterization of the facts,” he said. “These men are innocent. There is no plea. We are going to trial and we’re going to be acquitted. We have employees and a company we want to vindicate.”
LPCiminelli’s local projects include the Niagara Falls Police headquarters and Niagara Falls City Court, the Niagara Falls Culinary Institute, the new Maid of the Mist winter docks and a half dozen Niagara Falls School District projects.
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Saturday, December 31, 2016

Top local coverage goes to developers vs. the environment

From the Napa Register:

No. 1 story of 2016: Wine industry under fire

Napa County in 2016 saw heated growth wars involving not ever-expanding subdivisions threatening to pave over the landscape, but multiplying wineries and vineyards.
These are growth wars, Napa-style. They focus on the world-famous wine industry that is the county’s economic life blood and source of immense local pride, even among many who fear Napa is getting too much of a good thing.
With vacant space on the Napa Valley floor hard to come by, vineyard projects are increasingly targeted for the adjacent mountains. Some citizens see this as an attack on the region’s oak forests and the watersheds that drain into reservoirs for local cities.
The result was two land-use battles royal – Walt Ranch and the proposed watershed protection ballot initiative.
Craig and Kathryn Hall of HALL Wine in St. Helena are the driving force behind the Walt Ranch project. They have tried since 2008 to win county approval to create a few hundred acres of vineyards on the 2,300-acre property in the mountains between Napa and Lake Berryessa.
But a power couple who have entertained Bill and Hillary Clinton struggled to sell the project to opponents. The Napa Sierra Club said creating the vineyards means cutting down thousands of trees and hurting wildlife habitat. The neighboring, rural Circle Oaks community said irrigating vineyards could sap the community’s wells.
A massive environmental impact report done for the county concluding that Walt Ranch, with mitigation steps, would have no significant impacts failed to convince skeptics.
Opponents took their message to the street. There was weekend picketing at HALL Wine. About 100 protesters on Nov. 18 showed up for a peaceful rally in front of the downtown Napa County Administration Building, holding signs with such messages as “no chainsaw wines.”
Protester Jim Wilson said the opponents are citizens “who are standing up to hillside degradation, deforestation and water degradation.”
Craig Hall expressed surprise by the opposition he’s encountered over the past few years.
“At its basic, Walt vineyard is a vineyard in an agriculturally zoned area,” he said.
County staff in August granted Walt Ranch an erosion control plan, though it shrunk the vineyard block acreage to 209 acres. Opponents appealed to the Board of Supervisors, which after three days and 11 hours of hearings tentatively ruled in favor of Walt Ranch on Dec. 6.
“I think the applicant has met what we set out as the ground rules and I think in a lot of cases has gone beyond,” Supervisor Brad Wagenknecht said.
Another flash point came when local environmentalists tried to qualify a ballot measure they said would protect oak woodlands and watersheds. The measure called for limiting how many oaks can be removed from properties and increasing stream setbacks.

“We’re trying to enhance the protections that are already in the General Plan,” ballot measure proponent Mike Hackett said. “Nothing radical here.”
Napa Valley Vintners, Napa County Farm Bureau, Wine Growers of Napa County and Napa Valley Grapegrowers—the combined muscular might of the wine and agricultural sectors – saw things differently. They released a joint letter criticizing the proposed ballot measure.
Rex Stults of Napa Valley Vintners called the measure “backward-looking” and “anti-farming.”
Proponents gathered more than 6,200 signatures at shopping centers, far more than the 3,700 needed to qualify the initiative for the Nov. 8 ballot. An Election Day showdown loomed.

Then Registrar of Voters John Tuteur in early June disqualified the measure on a technicality a few days before the Board of Supervisors was scheduled to place it on the ballot.

That led to a battle in Napa County Superior Court as opponents tried to overturn the decision. Judge Diane Price sided with the county and the initiative remained off the ballot.
“Watersheds are essential for clean and abundant water for farming, people and wildlife,” Hackett said in the wake of the decision. “People should have the opportunity to vote on matters affecting their health. This is one of those times.”
Those wanting to change Napa County’s environmental policies also had a different type of electoral opportunity in 2016. Two candidates with strong environmental bents ran against incumbent Supervisor Alfredo Pedroza in June for the 4th District seat.
Pedroza raised $200,000 in campaign funds, with big contributions coming from the wine industry, though Pedroza said the only connection he has to the wine industry is his father was a farm worker and that he remains independent. Pedroza, who didn’t call for big changes in county environmental policies, won with 56 percent of the vote.
Another vineyard battle involved the already approved Bremer Family Winery vineyards in Deer Park Road in the mountains east of St. Helena. The Bremers are trucking in soil from such places as the Napa Valley floor along the Napa River to create vineyards in an area with rocky ground.
But the county since 2015 has disputed whether the Bremers have followed all of their permit requirements involving stream setbacks and other issues. This summer, the county halted work on this soil importation operation and worked with the Bremers to try to resolve the situation.
Not all wine country expansion proposals caused controversy. The type of new winery most likely to win quick county Planning Commission approval tended to be a small, family-owned operation that asked for no exceptions to county rules.
Napa County’s environmental battles went beyond wineries and vineyards. County supervisors held more than 11 hours of hearings over the controversial Syar quarry expansion near southeast Napa before granting approval. Opponents are suing the county.
           (Coming: Reaction by some of the principals)
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