After years of legal and political wrangling and even some controversy involving a county supervisor, a pristine parcel of land in Wine Country is slated to be purchased by the Land Trust of Napa Valley.
Doug Parker, CEO of the Land Trust, said in a statement that though the property has been approved for vineyard planting, if the deal is finalized, “that development will not take place.”
The trust is working in tandem with the Napa County Regional Park & Open Space District to secure the funding needed for the purchase of the 2,300-acre site. The current owners of the property, billionaire vintners Craig and Kathryn Hall, agreed to donate a “significant” portion of the value of the property, according to a joint statement released by the couple and the Trust. But the rest of the cost will have to be raised by May 31, Parker said.
The sale price has not been released, but the Halls purchased the property in 2005 for $8 million.
The proposed deal came as a shock to many, especially since the Halls appeared to have been fighting to develop a portion of the land into a vineyard for over a decade.
In the statement released Wednesday by the Halls, they said that they had actually been in conversation with the Land Trust since they first acquired the property.
“Conservation easements were always a critical part of our vineyard development plans,” said Mike Reynolds, president of Hall Wines. “Our recent discussions with the Land Trust about establishing a 1,000-plus-acre conservation easement led to this acquisition and donation.”
Not just any property
Wines from the Napa Valley are just that — vintages created in that specific 30-mile stretch of the county. Just like Champagne can only come from the Champagne region of France, for a wine to say Napa Valley on it, it has to be produced in that limited space, making the property exceedingly valuable. That’s why the Land Trust deal is especially remarkable.
The Napa County Board of Supervisors agreed in 2016 to allow the Halls to grow 209 acres of vineyards there, meaning 14,000 trees would have to be taken out. The Center for Biological Diversity then filed a lawsuit, arguing that the removal of that many trees would need to be mitigated to offset harm to the climate.
The challenge was taken all the way to the California appellate court, which found that greenhouse gas emission mitigation for the project was indeed insufficient. The next several years were spent with decisions about the project jumping back and forth between the planning commission and the Board of Supervisors.
In May of last year, the supervisors approved 30-foot buffer zones between any development and wooded areas as well as setting aside nearly 270 acres for preservation.
All of the political maneuvering around the Walt Ranch property drew a supervisor’s actions into question as well. Citizen watchdog and filmmaker Beth Nelson filed a complaint against Napa County Supervisor Alfredo Pedroza with the state’s Fair Political Practices Commission (FPPC) last spring, alleging a conflict of interest. Jay Wierenga, spokesperson for the FPPC, confirmed that a total of eight complaints against Pedroza had been filed with his agency.
At issue is a land purchase adjacent to the Walt Ranch property that Nelson said Pedroza is connected to yet was never revealed to the body. Pedroza voted on issues surrounding the property, making it a conflict of interest, she said.
The value of the adjacent property, owned by Pedroza’s father-in-law, could have ostensibly risen after the Halls successfully installed a vineyard, so some argued that he should have recused himself from any votes regarding the ranch.
Pedroza maintained that his father-in-law owned the property, but Nelson discovered that the company named in the ownership, Vinedos LLC, was closely linked to Pedroza, who used his private home as collateral for the sale and had signed property tax payments in his name.
The FPPC investigation against Pedroza is ongoing. During a Board of Supervisors meeting last year, Pedroza said the controversy has created “troubling attacks” on his family and that he had “lost sleep over it.”
Nonetheless, he began recusing himself from any Walt Ranch decisions after Nelson’s information was made public.
The property abuts 6,500 acres of undeveloped land, according to Parker, the Land Trust’s CEO who said protecting these wildlife corridors is paramount.
Now that it appears that the land is slated to be preserved, Aruna Prabhala, senior attorney for the Center for Biological Diversity, said her organization was “pleasantly surprised” about the news.
“We plan to reach out to both public and private donors to make sure that we can close this purchase, hopefully within the next six months.”Doug Parker, Land Trust of Napa Valley CEO
“The site is such an incredibly biodiverse and rich area in terms of plant and tree species and it is an ideal location for conservation and permanent protection,” she said.
Prabhala said that the land is home to oak woodlands, red-legged frog habitat, valley elderberry longhorn beetles, Contra Costa goldfields, Western pond turtles and foothill yellow-legged frogs, just to name a few species.
Parker said that the Halls’ donation will be a “great boost” toward the fundraising effort that will now be needed to close the transaction.
“We plan to reach out to both public and private donors to make sure that we can close this purchase, hopefully within the next six months,” he said.
Prabhala also hopes that the purchase will be finalized.
“We’re hopeful that the agreement goes through and that this signals to other vineyard developers and the county to think differently about what to do and what’s a good use of land use in Napa,” she said. “Preservation and protection benefits the entire community and we’re hopeful that we’ll see more of these types of agreements.”