Thursday, May 26, 2016

Looking for the big one

                  13. Gravitas Matters in Fights Like This
                        (from The Far Side of Eden)

     A month after meeting with Lippe, Chris and her associates in Concerned Citizens for Napa Hillsides began combing through erosion control plans filed with the county and then comparing those plans with what had taken place on the ground. They needed photographs of work done in the early stages of vineyards to buttress their assertions that the actual work had not conformed to specifics put forward in the erosion control plans. Neighbors came forward with photographs of their own of what was taking place on adjacent properties. Chris saw the relationship between the county and the developers as one big administrative scam.
     “What was being done by the engineers and the attorneys,” she told people, “and what the county was approving, was not what was happening on the landscape.”
     An almost religious fervor pervaded the search. To back up paper evidence, she had the growing stash of photos showing ecological assault and some scientific evidence from ongoing studies financed by the Mennen Environmental Foundation. Damage to invertebrates, fish, and waterway channels downstream from vineyard development was obvious, all fodder for any future legal action. And there were moles in at least two public agencies in the county providing additional raw data. This all went into the spinning hopper that would eventually spit out a verdict on whether or not to sue.
     Chris was adamantly for it, as she had always been. The lawyers were cautious, and the Mennens in between. They now had more than seventy potential targets, should they decide to move. They started narrowing the possibilities, to increase their chances of winning if they did go to court; the criteria that emerged from these sessions were simple: no mom-and-pop operations; vineyard plans that could be challenged within time limits set down by the California Environmental Quality Act; and real, demonstrable environmental damage.
     The photographs of early stages of development were crucial. Vivid pictorial evidence could, if need be, prove to a judge that damage had been significant before it was obscured under a sea of trellises and young vines. No decision would be made until all the legal research was in and the lawyers could predict near-certain success. Everyone agreed on all these things. Napa Valley had supposedly the best erosion control and land conservation regulations in the United States. The publicity about any such lawsuit in this, the darling of the wine world, destination of billionaires, would be widespread, and the criticism of the suit relentless. The stakes were just too high, both for the environment and for the environmentalists, to screw up.
     Meanwhile, on the Watershed Task Force, Chris found herself in arguments not just with Stu Smith but also with other members. Dennis Groth, owner of the well-known winery of the same name in Oakville, the pink stucco mission-style landmark nicknamed Taco Bell, producer of a notable cabernet, told her in a moment of exasperation, “Some people don’t care as much as you do about these species.” She took this as an indication that he cared for them not at all, and she thought the county’s position not much different. She was convinced now that “the developer/special interest deck was stacked against the conservationists and environmentalists.”
     In her opinion, both the county planning director and the professional facilitators in charge of task force procedures were tacitly allied with the wineries. They sought the same outcome of all the deliberation, which was hand slaps for the developers and no real follow-up. The first phase of the task force was almost at an end, and concrete change would clearly not emerge. There was a plan for establishing an information center where the citizenry could obtain facts about hillside development and a way of dedicating certain sensitive lands to a public trust; both good ideas, Chris thought, but of little practical use in addressing regulations and penalties for violations.
     Worse, there was no firm indication that the county planned to go ahead with the second phase of the task force, as had originally been intended. The second phase was to have looked at the scientific evidence still being collected and to have made hard recommendations for a tougher hillside ordinance. But the board of supervisors delayed authorizing money for the second phase. All this pointed to a legal remedy.
     There was a catch, however: the Mennen Environmental Foundation couldn’t sue. Its bylaws and tax-exempt status prevented this, although the foundation could, and did, finance the research for the potential suit. It would have to find an organization willing to front as plaintiff if the backers and the lawyers ever decided to file, and finding the right organization was crucial. Public perception of environmental lawsuits was generally good; almost as important as the cause itself was the reputation of the organizations behind it. This could be a factor in the final outcome, and in the outcomes of possible subsequent lawsuits: the more important the organization—the older, larger, more respected, more popular, and more committed—the better.

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