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The Other Side of the Walt Ranch controversy

By Igor Sill,
Sustainable & organic Napa grape grower
Letter To Napa’s BOS and Planning Commission

 

There is a great deal of controversy and confusion surrounding greenhouse gas emissions and real property rights as to the Walt Ranch project. After addressing and resolving all other issues, Napa’s BOS March decision is now focused on its last and remaining concerns: carbon sequestration and forest re-growth. It appears the Halls have done everything possible to comply with the County’s mandates as well as gone beyond mitigation for environmental carbon sequestration.

 

Napa is well known for its outsized share of activists that have alarmed the community with reporting of misleading information surrounding watershed, oak woodlands and long-term strategic plans. Having said that, the battle to stop Walt Ranch continues. Everyone agrees that public policy should be based on lawful property rights, conservation with reliance on fact-based science.

 

I would like to offer “the other side” in defense of the Hall’s plans for their property. I’ve never met Craig or Kathryn Hall, however, know of their many contributions to Napa, charities and our community.

 

Their project is being opposed by people concerned about vineyard projects in the watersheds, groundwater and the possible loss of oak woodlands. Last Tuesday’s meeting delayed the vote on 209 acres of vineyard development with over 15 years of expert environmental consultant costs and county fees as a result of opponents alleging a conflict of interest by a Supervisor and lack of carbon sequestration mitigation. If approved, Walt Ranch will be the most expensive 200 acres ever developed in Napa County.

 

At the heart of the Hall controversy is the clearing of 14,000 oak trees to plant vineyards. Virtually the entire Walt Ranch oaks were destroyed in the recent fires. Having said that, the county still required mitigation for greenhouse gas emissions as if those trees were still there. So as to mitigate this clearing the Halls have agreed to preserve 124 acres of woodlands and to plant 17,852 new trees. Scientific fact: fire promotes acorn germination and growth by reducing competitive pressure from underbrush vegetation, releasing soil nutrients, reducing litter-born pathogens, or improving contact with mineral soils. From US Forest Service:https://www.fs.fed.us/psw/publications/documents/psw_gtr217/psw_gtr217_551.pdf

 

After the 2017 Napa fires, nearly 14,000 acres of fire-damaged trees in Napa, Sonoma and Lake Counties were tagged for removal, according to Cal Fire statistics with more than 20,000 acres of private forests cut in 2018, a number that continues to increase as landowners (myself included) are still clearing the fire damage. Post fires, Napa oaks surrounding our watershed have and are returning in substantial numbers. Again, virtually all Walt Ranch trees burned in the 2017 and 2020 fires.

 

There are ecological benefits that follow because fires create a regenerative land. Reforestation is nature’s way of assuring carbon sequestration and forest re-growth.

 

The county has reviewed the Hall’s plans “with a fine-tooth comb” at substantial costs to taxpayers. Opponents shouldn’t mistake the strict agricultural protections with their desire to simply stop vineyard development. Opponents should consider that California has a 150-year history of legal principles regarding the ownership of real property wherein “property in a thing consists not merely in its ownership and possession, but in the unrestricted right of use, enjoyment, and disposal.”

 

Regard for another’s real property doesn’t seem to matter when you are inciting outrage, along with a massive publicity campaign to condemn the Halls and their legal rights. In the end, the Halls will have spent a considerable fortune for a non-existent threat. An example of misleading false information by one of these opponents can be found in the following statement published in the Napa Valley Register: “The science is solid and long settled that all watersheds in Napa County have impaired water quality from human land activities providing undeniable evidence that a yes vote on Measure C is justifiable. Sadly, Napa residents, including children, suffer the highest cancer rates in the state.”

 

Measure C failed. As to highest cancer rates, once fact-checked, this proved to be false and a gross exaggeration: American Cancer Society rates Napa as ranking 28th in California’s County cancer list falling virtually in the middle of the pack. As an example, our neighbor, Solano County has a 14.5% higher cancer rate.

 

Napa Planning Director David Morrison was absolutely correct in that decisions must be science and fact-based on absolute truth and accurate evidence versus fabricated, inaccurate and distorted misrepresentations: https://napavalleyregister.com/opinion/letters/facts-are-important-in-strategic-plan-process/article_67aad01e-62e2-5666-b9e3-7ff04accaba4.html.

 

If the activists and opponents disagree with the science and facts, then they should buy the property themselves. I contend the county’s BOS have acted fairly, properly and fully addressed all of your issues.

 

I thank BOS and the Planning Commissioners for leading a fair and common-sense approach to the issues facing our community, including a focus on Napa’s economic health, agriculture, family vineyards and wineries, while balancing growth with protections in a fair and legal manner for all of Napa’s community. Thank you for using science and fact-based information in your assessment and vote.

 

Igor Sill, Sustainable & organic Napa grape grower & Sierra Club member