Sunday, May 1, 2016

Trigger pulled

                                           8. The View from on High
                           (From The Far Side of Eden)
     Chris Malan received a plea from a woman in Wooden Valley who had assisted her with Micah when he was still in the hospital. The woman now had a crisis of her own: her neighbor, Jayson Pahlmeyer, was putting in big vineyards and subjecting her to dust and the constant drone of chainsaws. He was denuding hillsides remote from the rest of Napa Valley, out of public view. She asked for help.
     Chris and one of her neighbors on Atlas Peak Road, Parry Mead, went up in a small aircraft and told the pilot to fly them over all of Napa Valley—Atlas Peak, Pritchard Hill, Howell Mountain, Diamond and Spring mountains, Mount Veeder. They were shocked by what they saw. Parry took a lot of photographs, and the worst, in Chris’s view, was Pahlmeyer’s new vineyard. She would later call it “the trigger.”
     Broader involvement was needed to give the hillside ordinance real teeth. Yet another group, Concerned Citizens for Napa Hillsides, was founded, and Parry Mead’s photographs were submitted to the local newspaper and to the board of supervisors. Concerned Citizens began to protest hillside conversions and demand that use permits for steeper slopes be required. They insisted that conversions of woodland and chaparral to vineyard on even more gradual slopes be subject to the California Environmental Quality Act, from which the vintners were currently exempted. They wrote letters to the editor. People whose property had been flooded by runoff from development higher up or otherwise affected got in touch with Concerned Citizens and wrote letters of their own, and all this began to have an impact.
     The organization was granted a spot on the board of supervisors’ agenda, and Chris made a three-hour presentation. Using all the ammunition in the burgeoning file, she and her allies asked for a moratorium on the clearing of all hillsides. A moratorium was feared most by those seeking to profit from the unprecedented business expansion; the wine business was just so good, and all the flat land already in production, and here comes this proposal out of left field seeking to hobble the primary enterprise of Napa Valley. That was the view of most of the vintners. Moratorium was anathema to them, an economic and philosophical abomination sending up a figurative cloud of dust.
     The ever-mounting litany of complaints had to be listened to, as always, by supervisor Mel Varrelman of the V-neck sweaters, in the estate planning office with the blue awning. The hillside ordinance had produced some good effects, he thought, the required erosion control plans reducing the turbidity of the river, for instance. But controversial new vineyard “conversions” like Pahlmeyer’s, new houses, and the destruction of trees and vegetation wiped those benefits out of the public consciousness.
     People were so agitated that Mel’s re-election was cast into doubt. Something had to be done. Napa’s state senator, Mike Thompson, suggested the formation of an ad hoc committee composed of growers, scientists, environmentalists, soils people, and ordinary citizens to discuss development in the hills and ways to make it more palatable. It was to be chaired by a scientist from the Resource Conservation District.
     The idea of it was attacked by developers, Seventh-day Adventists up in Angwin, some vineyard managers and vintners opposed to any government regulation—the usual suspects—but the committee met anyway. It included Volker Eisele, Richard Niemann, a veteran canoeist and river advocate named Jim Hench, a young woman from the Farm Bureau, Joelle Gallagher, representatives of the legal firm of Dickenson, Peatman & Fogarty that often represented developers, a Mondavi vineyard manager, a vintner named Stuart Smith, and a few others. Thompson and Varrelman hoped they would all get along and that this would be the first step in defusing a potentially explosive issue.
     At first they seemed to get along, and Varrelman was reelected. He and his fellow supervisors voted to formalize the ad hoc committee, calling it the Watershed Task Force, and they appropriated money to hire a consulting firm to “facilitate” the meetings and eventually to produce a report. The operative word was consensus. Each supervisor was allowed to appoint people to the board. Chris Malan wanted on, of course, but the supervisor for her district thought her too outspoken. Then another, outgoing, lame duck supervisor agreed to appoint her, and Chris was in.
     Creating the Watershed Task Force did not, as Varrelman and Thompson had hoped, put the hillside issue to rest. Its head never touched the pillow.
 To order Napa:                                                                                                                    

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