Why one ordinary vineyard may threaten the future of Napa’s wine industry

By Published On: August 19, 2022

Jess Lander, San Francisco Chronicle (MCT)

By Napa Valley standards, Green Island Vineyard is an ordinary, under-the-radar plot for grape-growing. But the land in south Napa County is suddenly at the center of a heated political debate, with some worried that its fate could jeopardize the future of Napa’s wine industry.

The vineyard’s owners say it is “blighted,” no longer viable for grape growing. They want to rip out their vines and redevelop the land for industrial use, such as wine warehouses used for fulfillment or storage. Rezoning the land to allow that is a logical solution, they say, because the vineyard is already located next to an industrial park.

But Napa Valley preservationists, including wine and agriculture groups like the Napa County Farm Bureau and Napa Valley Vintners, are worried that could set a dangerous precedent of converting protected land and kick-start urban sprawl.

In November, residents of American Canyon, located at the south end of Napa County, will vote on the first significant step toward redevelopment. Regardless of the outcome, some say, Green Island Vineyard represents a much larger tug-of-war developing in Napa County: the community versus the wine industry.

For decades, land use has been controversial in Napa, where the preservation of agriculture — and thus the wine industry — has been a high priority. This commitment to preservation goes back to 1968, when the Napa Valley Agricultural Preserve was established. The first designation of its kind in the U.S., it protects more than 30,000 acres of the region’s valuable farmland from urban development.

The 157-acre Green Island Vineyard (1661 Green Island Road) is located in an unincorporated pocket of Napa County and zoned for agriculture, watershed and open space use. In order to switch it to industrial zoning, the property would need to be annexed by the city of American Canyon.

Napa County land use debates like this one have intensified in recent years. The region’s fast growth has left little room for expansion and the planting of new vineyards, yet there’s also limited space for other critical community needs, above all housing. As the demand for affordable housing in Napa County increases, the fate of some of the region’s protected acreage is becoming uncertain.

Vineyard and winery development projects, like Walt Ranch and Frank Family’s Benjamin Ranch, have endured years of repeated appeals and pushback from community members and activists citing environmental concerns in the face of climate change, impeding the wine industry’s growth. But those properties are set in premium wine-growing regions — Atlas Peak and Rutherford, respectively — where land is extremely valuable. Green Island Vineyards, on the other hand, is in an area of Napa Valley not known for high-end wine production.

Set just west of the American Canyon border and south of the Napa County Airport, the area is the gateway to Napa Valley; tourists generally speed through on their way to the region’s wineries, hotels and restaurants. The vineyard is next to a large industrial park that includes Amazon and Ikea.

So why so much concern over it being replaced by more warehouses?

“It’s the slippery slope argument,” said Brendon Freeman, executive officer of Napa County’s Local Agency Formation Commission (LAFCO). If the proposal moves forward, the commission would have the final say on whether the property can be annexed. “If you let this one go, who’s to say you don’t start a domino effect and a bunch of other ag land ends up getting lost?”

Eve Kahn, the co-president of environmental coalition Napa Vision 2050 and an alternative member of LAFCO, said the annexation proposal might not have gotten as much attention a few years ago, but intensified concerns over fires, drought and water have made it a bigger issue.

“In the scheme of things and its location, you go, ‘ho-hum,'” said Kahn. “But we’re already concerned we’re going to lose some of our vineyards, so I think there’s a heightened awareness of the environmental issues. There’s more of a community interest in saying, ‘We’re Wine Country and we have to do whatever we can to preserve this.'”

Green Island also adjoins the wetlands of the Napa River and a popular cycling and walking path.

The owners of the vineyard, which was purchased in 1996, claim that the land is no longer viable for agriculture due to high salinity in its soil, which they say has caused the vines to die. Over the past several years, they have torn out two-thirds of their vines; only 39 acres, which they say also are tainted, remain.

Those against the rezoning plan are pushing for soil remediation or the planting of alternative crops, like oats, hay and rye, which can grow in salty conditions, but are not as lucrative as wine grapes.

“If the property gets annexed, it’s saying that it’s acceptable to annex ag land if an owner’s expected crop return doesn’t materialize,” said Ryan Klobas, CEO of the Napa County Farm Bureau.

Green Island’s owners — Ed Farver, former general manager at Jackson Family Wines; Will Nord, who started Napa Valley College’s viticulture program and owns a vineyard management company; and attorney David Gilbreth, who has represented many wineries — counter that remediation or replanting is not possible.

“There is no viable water source to support agricultural activities and agriculture,” Gilbreth told The Chronicle. He also pointed to an analysis presented at a June LAFCO hearing, where soil scientist Paul Anamosa said that the vineyard is in a “death spiral” and economics expert Wenbiao Cai estimated that growing oats on the property would result in an annual loss of nearly $57,000.

According to LAFCO’s Freeman, the process of annexation is complicated and could take years. But the first major hurdle, approval of Ballot Measure J, is up for vote at the general election in November.

In order for the vineyard to be eligible for annexation, American Canyon residents must pass an amendment to extend the city’s urban limit line — a boundary that marks the end of urban development in an area — to include Green Island Vineyard. Currently, the vineyard is bordered on three sides by this line. The ballot measure cites several potential benefits of its redevelopment, including job creation, tax revenue and transportation improvements.

Opponents have suggested that the wording of Measure J is misleading and could push voters in favor of extending the urban limit line. They take issue with descriptors such as “blighted,” “vacant” and “undeveloped,” pointing out that there are 39 acres of vines still in the ground. The measure also attributes the soil’s salinity to “naturally occurring saltwater intrusion,” but at the LAFCO hearing, Anamosa’s analysis suggested the culprit is the city’s recycled water used for irrigation.

“From a sense of good governance, it riles me that what was put in that ordinance is totally misleading,” said annexation opponent Kahn. “The people in American Canyon will probably say, ‘Hey, it’s not in my backyard, so that’s fine. Go put another warehouse in.'”

As in many previous land-use debates, both advocates and opponents are gearing up for what could be a long fight. One that could be for naught.

Even if Measure J fails, the push for redeveloping Napa County agricultural land will likely continue. Rising housing pressures could ultimately tip the scales, said Freeman.

For years, Napa Valley has been grappling with affordable housing woes; according to Zillow, home values in the area have risen 13% in just the past year. This has worsened Napa Valley’s staffing shortage by making it increasingly difficult for workers in the region’s wine, food and hospitality industries to live within Napa County.

The same wine industry groups fighting against Green Island Vineyard are currently pushing for the site of a former school in the Carneros wine region to be repurposed for farmworker housing. While it’s not protected ag land, it is a sign that the industry recognizes housing as a pressing need, especially with an ongoing labor shortage.

And the county is being forced to act on creating more housing. The Association of Bay Area Governments, which is responsible for dividing up the state housing allocation in the Bay Area, has assigned more than 1,000 homes to Napa County — three times the amount required in previous allocations, said Kahn. The assignment includes building housing in rural areas and in the small cities of Calistoga, St. Helena and Yountville, and the plan must be completed by January 31, 2023.

If these communities can’t find sites to build housing, they will be forced to implement a rezoning program and protected ag land might be the only option, suggested Kahn, who is also a Napa real estate agent. One way or the other, it seems, the precedent Napa’s agricultural industry groups fear will likely be set.

“I don’t know what the county is going to do to meet the housing demands and at a certain point, you would think there would have to be a rebalancing of priorities,” said Freeman. “It sure seems like building housing will take priority over preserving the existing ag and open space lands.”

Jess Lander is a San Francisco Chronicle staff writer. Email: jess.lander@sfchronicle.com Twitter: @jesslander

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