County shuns evidence-based decision on Mountain Peak

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Bill Hocker | Apr 3, 2019

In August 2017, Napa County and its Board of Supervisors approved the Mountain Peak winery project - a 100,000 gallon and 14,500 visitor-per-year event center at the very end of the 6 mile, dead-end Soda Canyon Road. Their decision was based in part on several "Findings of Fact" pertaining to fire danger on Soda Canyon Road such as the following:

From the "Findings of Fact" issued by the Supervisors in approving the project:
"Neighbors' opinion that winery visitors will cause traffic congestion during a fire is not supported by fact. Generalized fears and concerns about a project does not constitute substantial evidence."

"In the event of a fire that results in mass evacuations from this area, the road has sufficient capacity and roadway width to accommodate all outgoing traffic while allowing incoming fire response units."

"Appellant's claim that fire rescue/response efforts will be impeded along Soda Canyon Road if the Project is constructed are unfounded and not supported by factual evidence."

Soca Canyon Road - one way out
On the night of Sunday, October 8, 2017, 6 weeks after the Supervisors approval, factual evidence arrived as the Atlas Fire erupted moving at rate of almost 70 mph. Residents on lower Soda Canyon Road had only minutes to evacuate and many barely escaped, as a fallen tree blocked the entirety of the road for several precious minutes while the fire closed in on all sides. Tragically, two residents died in the fire. On upper Soda Canyon near the Mountain Peak project site, 60-70 people became completely trapped, their only escape route down Soda Canyon blocked by the fire. 40-50 of them were evacuated by a CHP helicopter in 60+ mph crosswinds. The fire burned 22,110 acres, including the entirety of lower SCR in less than one day, and within two days burned a total of 42,181 acres. In all, the Atlas Fire damaged or destroyed 134 of the 163 residences on Soda Canyon Road, 118 of them completely.

On Feb. 22, 2019, as part of the CEQA suit brought by residents against the County, a Napa Superior Court Judge ordered the County's approval of the Mountain Peak winery project to be remanded to the Board of Supervisors to consider the new evidence provided by the October 2017 Atlas Fire. The Court's order rightfully observes that the new evidence calls into question several of the Board's "Findings of Fact" supporting its approval of the winery project, noting "the complete inaccessibility of Soda Canyon Road during a fire and resulting helicopter evacuations of stranded individuals."

The 2017 Atlas Fire was a tragic and devastating event, the impacts and consequences of which are still being felt across the entire Soda Canyon, Atlas Peak, and greater Napa-Sonoma communities. The Court reached the right decision in remanding this issue to the Supervisors in light of the clear and present fire dangers that have existed in the Soda Canyon, Monticello, and Atlas Peak communities and will continue to exist going forward.

Unfortunately, on March 28, 2019, the County and Mountain Peak jointly filed a writ of mandate with the Court of Appeal, First Appellate District challenging the Napa Superior Court's order that the County must consider evidence pertaining to the devastating Fire.

What's discouraging in the County's decision is that as recently as September and October of 2018, the Supervisors questioned their own evaluation and approval process used for the Mountain Peak project and for other winery projects in the remote areas of the county, considering the devastation caused by the fire. In response to a residents's description of the fire, Supervisor Dillon stated at the September 25, 2018 meeting on remote wineries that "We would have had a disaster if there would have been a major event happening of any kind. . . ." at Mountain Peak on the night the fire began.

On October 15, 2018, Supervisor Dillon went even further and effectively questioned the County's wisdom in approving Mountain Peak at all, stating:
    "Uh-oh, I think we're in a little bit of trouble because I looked at the Mountain Peak winery comparison chart - - this is compatibility but compatibility of comparison, that had been prepared by the planning staff and it was for Mountain Peak at the top of the canyon, and it was compared to [A]shes and [D]iamonds, [R]ound [P]ond, [B]lack [S]tallion, Trincaro, Alpha Omega. Why on earth was [Mountain Peak] compared to those things? I remember thinking this is not a good thing because we're not comparing apples to apples.

    The essence of what we're talking about today, the reason this started with remote is we're supposed to be talking not comparing a winery at the top of Soda Canyon to a winery on the Silverado Trail. You just can't make that comparison. And yet that's where we are right here. We're talking about these details.

    What I'm really concerned about is going through each of these things, seven, and deciding on each of these factors and then you're going to have some proposal come before the planning commission that might technically fit into each of these. It's not a good fit at this location where it is. I realize that this is land use planning, so it's a little difficult to use. . . I remember in the discussion of pornography, there was the judge at one point who said "I'll know it when I see it." Well, I mean, the sort of flip of that is I'll know when this is not a good fit at this location based on what neighbors say, based on many factors and that's the way the winery definition ordinance was designed, it didn't have all these details in it. If you look at the transcript from when it was decided, the legislative history which I wish staff would bring to us. We have it, it says we're going to look at these on a case by case basis."

Supervisor Ramos added in the same meeting:
    "Topography, I agree its very site specific. I think topography, at least in my comments that I made and I was certainly making them in terms of roadway standards and access. So I don't see topography as its own category. . . I think we were looking at it more from a slope issue, from a setback issue and from a roadway access issue. When it comes to fire safety, certainly those same issues apply for me.
    . . .
    I second [Supervisor Dillon's demand] and I'll say that we're looking at projects in isolation as opposed to the totality of the circumstances. I don't mean that from a cumulative impact standpoint. I mean that from a community impact standpoint."

Finally, at the end of the October 16, 2018 meeting regarding remote wineries, Supervisor Wagenknecht made the following comments
    In the work product we have today, there's no mention of the remoteness of the - - what a remote site would be, it would be a lot of - - I think it could be a lot of things, the remoteness of the road, the narrowness of the road, the accessibility of the parcel, how far the parcel was from arterial [roads].

    I guess I'm kind of the in the mindset in my mind, that I'm not seeing a real need for more wineries in the far [h]inter lands of Napa County. I'm seeing that we have plenty of them out there. . . You know, there would need to be a traffic benefit from the winery coming in, the traffic for the overall neighborhood coming in. There would need to be a safe - - fire safety and safety benefit for that winery coming in, emergency benefit.
    . . .
    I've appreciated the discussion that we've had more broadly, but I don't want to lose that I'm very concerned with wineries that are going out in the middle of nowhere that are - - and I don't - - yeah. I'm not seeing a huge reason for them."

During the 2016 and 2017 Planning Commission meetings on the Mountain Peak project, Soda Canyon residents repeatedly emphasized that the County was ignoring the access constraints, fire safety concerns, and adverse impacts from additional traffic on Soda Canyon Road that construction of the project and 15,000 yearly visitors and 19 daily employees will undoubtedly introduce. They brought up the same concerns in their appeal to the Board of Supervisors in May 2017. In Sept of 2017 residents filed a lawsuit against the County for failing to properly evaluate the environmental concerns posed by the project. The Atlas Fire occurred 2 weeks later providing a very significant example of the dangers that residents had presented and that the Supervisors had decided were less than significant.

Now, in the spring of 2019, the Napa Superior Court has ordered the County to re-consider the project in light of evidence pertaining to the 2017 Atlas Fire. The County is appealing the Superior Court's decision to avoid doing so. In light of their comments last fall one might hope that the Supervisors would welcome the opportunity to revisit their approval of Mountain Peak in light of the factual evidence the fire provided. Yet the County seems determined to avoid having to confront the wisdom of their decision. It is better that they do so now rather than after a disaster that everyone can now easily visualize.

Please consider writing a letter to your Supervisor about this critical issue, as well as donating to PRN to support our ongoing and critical legal battle that the County seems intent upon winning at all costs.

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