Sunday, November 20, 2016

Napa's man between the developers and the enviros

           People said: "Dave Morrison's smart."                                                                   

  He grew up in Fresno, one of the Central Valley’s sprawling metropolises built around farming. It had turned into another struggling mass of urban problems caused by the failures of corporate agriculture, with decreasing profits for the small farmer. But local radio and television stations continued to broadcast “news” the small farmer could use - weather updates, frost warnings, commodity prices and ag ads - but many residents no longer even understood them.
  Dave Morrison’s father was a truck driver and his best friend’s father a crop-duster, but Dave majored in anthropology and economics at Fresno State, with a minor in studio arts. He went on to get a masters in city and regional planning at UC Davis, a chunky guy with a dark hair and a dead ringer for a Native American. He had his own DNA plumbed, certain he would find an bonafide Indian among his ancestors, but he didn't. The woman he ended up marrying was a student of Native American cultures and ethnography, and it would have pleased them both to find that link.
Meanwhile, working first in the shadow of the state capital and then in Yolo County as a planning director, Dave maintained a full, lustrous ponytail that only added to the Native impression. That and careful, softly-spoken words and a contemplative mien he took with him into the same job in nearby Napa County that had previously been held by the Hillary Gitelman.
Sometimes people with an appointment to speak to Dave would look up and find him standing there, hands folded, patiently waiting. Once behind his desk, he talked precisely about stream set-backs, vineyard permit reviews, or the California Environmental Quality Act and sometimes his eyes would close. That didn’t mean Dave was asleep, just that he was thinking. People began to say, “Dave Morrison’s smart.” 
Yolo’s tax revenue had been the second lowest in California, but that county still found ways to protect agriculture from development. Napa’s tax revenue was much higher and its laws protecting ag the strictest in the state. This was in large part due to the existence of the agricultural preserve, and the passage of various ballot measures taking power away from supervisors. But many of the issues were similar. He had worked on big development projects proposed in Yolo, too, but Napa probably had the most complex regulations in all the rural United States.
The Walt Ranch proposal was the biggest thing he had dealt with: three volumes of regulations and five thousand pages of comments that had to be read and answered. And new comments and information kept coming in. If he denied a project he had to have good reasons and to work closely with the five county supervisors who - ideally - reflected the will of the people. But the people had become quite critical of wineries being forgiven for past violations, and of county government. “We all break the rules sometimes,” he sometimes said, but that no longer placated critics.
And, “Was it Tacitus or Herodotus who wrote, ‘When you have too many rules, you have no law.’ Consistency in applying them is very important.” But the county needed cause to investigate wineries’ improprieties. Potential adversaries on both sides had enough money to take the county to court. Though the department had doubled enforcement efforts against wineries, with four inspectors, complaints persisted.
In some ways, Dave Morrison felt, Napa was following the example set by the Founding Fathers who established the tradition of deliberative debate. But some applicants were unfamiliar with that tradition. They tended to condemn the idea of global warming, whereas others espoused it furiously. Out of curiosity Dave did some research and discovered that only about twenty per cent of the countries of the world had done anything at all about global warming, including America. More surprising, “Only about twenty per cent of California has done anything about it. So Napa County’s a minority within a minority.”
The state under Gov. Jerry Brown set strict standards for measuring greenhouse gasses, which have to be below forty per cent of 1990 levels by 2030. Loss of carbon sequestration occurs when trees are cut, “but the Napa County has 130,000 acres of oaks. Pointing this out doesn’t placate opponents of cutting even one.”
   The county was working on all emissions, including what would be required of the more than five hundred brick-and-mortar wineries, and as many as two hundred more operating out of other facilities. Relatively few were aware of what those emissions amounted to and what would eventually have to be done about it.
You had to practically be a lawyer to be a planner nowadays, Dave thought. Approval of a project went with the land, not the applicant, but projects were closely identified with the people often accused to abusing the land to get ready for an inspection. “Since Google Earth introduced the timeline feature planners can go back and look at the earlier conditions. The internet changed everything, it’s the new Guttenburg press.”
But violations occurring before it are much harder to prove. And water was trickier, since California’s the only state that doesn’t regulate ground water. But that too was changing. Development pressure was huge in the state, and Napa was the only county vibrant enough to withstand it, even though it was right next to San Francisco Bay.
Dave once asked a group of Napa vintners how many of them would accept an offer of two, even three million dollars an acre for their land. Only one hand had gone up, “even though they could have built a winery somewhere else, put thirty million dollars in the bank, and still gotten a 98 Parker score” with what had become a de facto cult wine formula. “But they want to be in Napa. It’s all economics - we’re Americans, and all Americans think that way. But many wineries operating here today are not for business but for vanity. So the economics breaks down because irrationality has been introduced.”  
Ballot measures limiting destruction of land “make land development hard, but if someone spends two million dollars on ads they can probably overturn a law.” He doesn’t say so but that includes the agricultural preserve. “Planning’s about balancing societal issues and finding a way to resolve conflict, but sometimes you just can’t.” He had to be careful not to tip anyone off as to how he might finally come down on the question of Walt Ranch. That included members of his own staff because he didn’t want to prejudice their work.

For distraction, the planning director goes hiking on weekends with his wife and young son. By the time he announced his decision, county-wide spring elections will be over and there’ll be a new board of supervisors. The decks will be clear for what’s bound to be a major legal battle. Craig Hall will sue if he doesn’t get his permit, the combined forces of Circle Oaks, East Napa Watersheds, and the Sierra Club, in conjunction with Chris Malan, will sue if he does. With all that money involved, it’s going to be one hell of a fight.
(Deep Root thinks that, in the end, the tree-cutters will be denied by a county fearful of having to pay huge damages later. Stay

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1 comment:

  1. Mr Conaway: I am commenting on the Deep Roots article, which appears to have been removed. As one intensely involved with the Walt Project for two years and counting, I appreciate Deep Roots willingness to talk to you. He has great insight. (though re the remark at the end of the Morrison article "he" will deny the tree-cutters: actually it is now in the hands of the Supes -- Morrison certified the Walt EIR) I have a hunch who this man is. Our great frustration is that he, and so many like him, who share our values, who have great technical expertise and respect in their professions and in Napa, may be willing to speak with us off the record, to share their concerns, and even sometimes to give us expert guidance. But at the end of the day, they are intimidated by the wine industry. They will not allow their names and knowledge to be used to influence the outcome, because they depend on the industry for their livelihoods. To take one example, the Circle Oaks Water District had great difficulty securing a hydrologist with expertise in local geology, because they feared being blackballed by the industry. (And none of us expect free consultation, we are willing to pay for comments for the record). Not only do citizen activists lack the total financial resources of the wine industry, we even lack the same access to scientific testimony.
    Thank you for your great blog!
    Nancy Tamarisk, Chair, Napa Sierra Club
    p.s. You say "Lolo"county a couple of times instead of "Yolo"