The Napa-fication Of Salinas
Critics challenge the County's plans for a booming wine industry.
Thursday, May 2, 2002
Photo: Richard Pitnick; more than 60 percent of the grapes grown in Monterey County are shipped out of the county for processing.
Douglas Fay enjoys a glass of Monterey Chardonnay as much as the next guy. But the County''s policies on wineries-laid out in the draft General Plan Update-leave a sour taste in his mouth.
"I''m not against the wine industry," says Fay, who sits on the Greater Salinas Area Land Use Advisory Committee. "But you look at the policy and it doesn''t make sense."
According to the draft plan, "The County shall designate three winery corridors within the Salinas Valley to promote the processing and marketing capabilities of the industry to more fully utilize the wine grape production already existing within the County."
The three corridors run along River Road, Metz Road and Jolon Road.
Monterey County growers produce about 45,000 acres of wine grapes, and more than 60 percent are shipped out of county for processing. The county believes that allowing "value-added" business to flourish will mean jobs and tax dollars for Monterey County.
But critics worry that this will open the door to a Napa-like influx of tasting rooms, bed-and-breakfasts and the like. And they feel the County''s given preferential treatment to the wine industry by streamlining the application process and appointing an industry-friendly committee.
At the County Planning Commission''s first two public hearings on the General Plan, Fay suggested his own winery policy recommendations. Most significantly, he submitted a request to remove all language referring to designated winery corridors until county staff developed a separate viticulture-specific plan. No such plan is in the pipeline.
He doesn''t like to see all wine industry projects labeled "agriculture," when the potential environmental impacts of wineries and tasting rooms-increased tourism and traffic, new buildings and development, threats of hillside erosion and fragmentation of wildlife corridors and viewsheds-differ substantially from row crops or other ag interests.
He starts counting the facilities sketched out in the plan: up to 40 artisan wineries, 10 full-scale wineries, five stand-alone tasting rooms, three new restaurants, five new delis and more.
Fay says he supports the idea that local wine growers should be able to process their grapes.
"The growing need for processing in Monterey County is clear," he says. But Fay says he doesn''t see the need for 50 new wineries.
Instead of designating River Road as a wine corridor, Fay wants the Board of Supervisors to apply for California Scenic Route status. He says Scenic Route status will preserve River Road''s rural character, will prevent the proposed four-lane widening project, and will keep River Road safer for area residents, bicyclists and wildlife.
While much of the wine-related traffic debates focus on Salinas Valley roads, North County folks worry that tourists will hold county residents hostage in their homes.
"We have people in Oak Hills who can''t even get out of their subdivision on the weekend because the traffic [on Highway 156] is so heavy," says Prunedale rancher Jan Mitchell. She reads off a list of "possible accessory uses associated with wineries," from the County''s draft Application Requirements and Processing booklet.
"Bed and Breakfasts, picnic grounds, campgrounds, delicatessens, restaurants, conference center, indoor events of 150 persons or less, outdoor events of 150 persons or less, concerts, weddings, spa resort, golf course, tennis courts.
"If we make Monterey County another Napa Valley with the possibility of all the ancillary uses, we''re talking about a whole lot of traffic."
Mitchell echoes the concern of many who have followed the winery committee since its inception.
"We object to the fact that the wineries were singled out for preferential treatment," she says.
In April 2001, the Board of Supervisors voted to establish a committee to support the wine industry. Two supes-Lou Calcagno and Edith Johnsen-sit on the committee, as do two County staffers, Zoning Administrator Lynne Mounday and General Plan Update team member Lynn Burgess. Several wine industry representatives do, too.
The Sierra Club, the California Native Plant Society and several other individual residents have asked to sit on the committee. They were turned down.
"It was deemed unnecessary by the County Supervisors and the Vintners," says Julie Engell, one of the people vying for a place on the committee. "Nobody else, including people who have no financial gain, people who are just concerned and interested, got a place on the committee."
"The impacts from vineyards can be considerable-viewshed and erosion are only a part of it," says Sierra Club''s Gillian Taylor. "They can fragment the wildlife corridors, they can have serious impacts on biodiversity and the ability of species to sustain themselves. We want to make sure that any impacts are fully analyzed and fully mitigated."
Claude Hoover, president of the county''s Vintners and Growers Association, says "there''s no way" the wine industry has operated in secret.
"We went to great lengths to have multiple meetings," says Hoover. "The process was open to the public, we''re very open to public comments and we think that we''re environmentalists as well."
He says many large wineries-Fetzer, Arroyo Seco, Mondavi-have chosen not to locate in Monterey County "because of the lengthy and uncertain process to get a permit." He says they would have brought additional jobs and tax dollars with them.
"I think everybody recognized that we needed some attention from the county. Not special treatment, but something to give us more equal footing with our competitors." He''s loath to name them-Napa County, Sonoma County.
Wine industry watchdogs say they want to believe Hoover. But they worry that the wine industry won''t deliver on its promise of fame and fortune.
"The wine industry is making some great claims about what their future means to the future of Monterey County-and they may be correct," Engel says. "My concern is that nobody is asking the tough questions."