"We're going to deal with it."
By Mike Hackett
By Mike Hackett
Pioneering member of Napa Valley Land Trust and life-long environmental activist, Duane Cronk, has been vehement about the similarities between national politics and the political climate here in Napa. Cronk was an advisor to the recently stalled Water, Forest and Oak Woodland Protection Initiative for the 2016 ballot. The measure would have provided enhanced protections to Napa County watersheds by limiting the percent of oak woodland removal and mandating forest preservation along Napa streams, rivers and wetlands.
Cronk has experienced these feelings before: 40 years ago when the Ag Preserve was laid into law. “ We managed to protect the valley floor for our current and future grape and wine production, but as Volker Eisele used to say: ‘we protected the ag preserve over 40 years ago, but now we have to protect the ag watershed,’ and he was so right on the mark.”
The fiercest battle in Napa is the overarching theme of resident’s rights versus the agri-tourism reality that pervades the famous wine growing region in Northern California. Where Napa was once a model of inclusiveness within the farming community, it now is choking on its own success. And the wealthy and powerful are interested in having a bite of this cake. Since the formation of Vision 2050, a coalition of 14 environmental neighborhood environmental groups, and increased scrutiny of land use decisions from the Board of Supervisors and Planning Commission, the awareness has grown within the Napa Valley community that the balance of rights is far too industry weighted, some in the media even claiming voter suppression relating to the initiative mentioned earlier.
Some of the most egregious decisions we’ve seen the Planning Commission and Board of Supervisors allow are a winery that dug caves without a permit, an underground winery that opened illegal portals, formation of an Ag Protection Advisory Committee ( weighted with industry insiders ) that stalled on anything that would have given a peek into a winery’s operation, the realization that most, if not all wineries are operating outside their allowed use permit, disinterest in the air pollution coming from a expansion-hopeful asphalt plant, and now a gamble with our water infrastructure. Our county is ignoring the pleas of its citizens who are calling for real and science-based environmental changes that they feel are needed in this age of climate change and world-wide water crisis.
The reality is that without our elected officials listening to the whole of its citizenry, confusion and frustration has grown exponentially. Once the critical mass is reached, the fallout can be dumbfounding. There is growing dissatisfaction with land use decisions in Napa Valley. The public trust is being eroded, and the powerbrokers are having their way.
The very powerful, along with short-sighted corporations control the balance of power in Napa. Does this sound like the sentiment from those in Nebraska, or Wisconsin or Iowa? President-elect Trump took full advantage of this same sentiment, offering them a renewal of sorts in their area. The powerful vintner lobby groups in Napa Valley are also showcasing their bottom lines and pivot to their movement towards greener farming. In reality, the powerful winery and tourism model is to grow, expand and don’t let anyone get in their way.
This year, the Water, Forest and Oak Woodland Protection Initiative was conceived by several local activists who were convinced that Napa has a seriously negative water future. The City of Napa is very concerned about the quality and quantity from the watersheds into their reservoirs. The proponents hired arguably the finest Initiative law firm in California, Shute Mihaly and Weinberger to draft the document for the November 2016 ballot.
After collecting 6300 signatures, roughly 25% more than needed, the Registrar of Voters certified the measure for the ballot. Three days later, at the urging of County Counsel, the Registrar was told by the County’s legal head, to pull the initiative from the ballot, claiming it had a legal flaw. It referenced the Best Management Practices (BMP’S) from the Napa Voluntary Oak Management Plan, but did not include the language in the initiative document itself. The law firm was shocked at this outcome.
While this held the initiative off the ballot for 2016, the proponents have sued in the District Court in San Francisco and have stated: “this case promises to be one of the most important initiative cases of the decade.”
There are many in the media calling this “voter suppression,” once again a claim that is heard on the national scene. It appears that officials from county government placed two other county-sponsored initiatives on the ballot, in spite of the fact they contain the same type of reference to outside materials. I said at the time, “The opinion of county counsel radically departs from the intent of the initiative process. The courts have repeatedly and consistently emphasized the fundamental nature of citizens’ right to place initiatives on the ballot.”
Napa’s citizens are uniting, and along with the trend nationally, will provide resistance to those who have never experienced resistance in the past. Napa’s citizens will stand together to prevent death to its watersheds, forests, ground water sustainability, habitat, and will leave the valley better than they found it.
The same questions remain in Napa and throughout the Country: Who’s in control? Why are they in control? What are our philosophical attitudes towards climate change? Are we going to stand behind reality, or magical thinking? How do our leaders see their role in the protection of our environment and the planet?
The trust is gone locally and nationally. Let’s all come together and demand truth and justice. This is the only mechanism by which we will survive. Duane, you were right. The politics of Napa mirror the dissatisfaction we see on the National level. We’re going to deal with it.
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