The Halls began their proposed Walt Ranch, named for Kathryn Hall's maiden name Walt, after purchasing the 2,300 acre property in 2005. The project seeks to create new vineyards on what are several hundred acres of oak forests. The plan, initially scoped at cutting down 30,000 oak trees, has been scaled back to cut down 14,000 oaks in a pristine undeveloped watershed area.
While the project has passed planning dept. review and is in accord with many county guidelines, it hasn't met with local residents' approval.
While earlier waves of land use protection - namely Napa's famed Agricultural Preserve - fought to preserve agricultural lands - confining commercial and residential real estate development to limited areas - they did not adequately address watershed protection, in the eyes of many. Hence, the protests.
The most organized group that has formed to oppose the project is the DENW - Defenders of the East Napa Watershed. In addition to their vocal opposition to the project, their web site provides full documentation and background on the project from official sources. (I highly recommend reading it if you want to know more about this story.)
Virginia based writer James Conaway, who has long chronicled Napa's environmental and agricultural protectionist history (see his two books Napa: An American Eden and its sequel), is back in the valley to write the third book in his trilogy about Napa. He's current blogging about the Walt Ranch proposal. He's found a source - who he calls Deep Root - who is a geomorphologist who's been a consultant on many vineyard development projects.
The Halls made their fortune in Texas real estate and to hear Deep Root talk about it, their eyes aren't just on turning the land into vineyards. "Walt Ranch is the biggest, most lucrative real estate pivot this county's seen since the change in the definition of agriculture and of great symbolic value," Deep Root says, as Conaway writes this week. Deep Root think the Halls will turn the property into 35 ranchettes someday. (Most vineyard projects don't call for 35 subdivided parcels - which you can see pictured below in the Walt Ranch proposal posted on the DENW site.)
Deep Root is critical of the system - which doesn't protect nature, in his view. Here's an excerpt of Deep Root's comments from Conaway's blog:
For all those opposing the development, land preservation and watershed protection are the main concerns.
I emailed a family member of one of the Ag Preserve's founders last month (whose comments were off the record) who is concerned about the development. "It's always grapes before houses," the family member said, "but the scope of this project and others need to be better evaluated. The current planning laws are really quite loose, especially when comes to wineries and granting variances. I think it is a situation where many will not realize until it is a bit late."
In the meantime, some residents have recognized the threat to the watershed the proposed project presents and made their voices heard this week to Napa's elected officials. (To read coverage of the latest protect from the Napa Valley Register, click here.) Stay tuned for the results.
Read the rest of Deep Root's story on Conaway's blog here.
Note: the Halls are also involved in a proposal - in partnership with the Koch Brothers - to build a luxury hotel in Calistoga. For more info, see Conaway's blog.
The Halls - Craig and Kathryn - already own Senza Hotel in Napa.
In addition, another Hall - Ted Hall, owner of Long Meadow Ranch Winery and Farmstead restaurant in St. Helena - is considering building an 80 unit hotel in downtown St. Helena - a project that has been in an exploratory phase.
Update Nov. 22: The Napa County Board of Supervisors heard from the project's proponents Nov. 21. See Napa Valley Register coverage here.