We’re celebrating the 50th anniversary of the Agricultural Preserve here in Napa County. Because of this special milestone, we will share stories about the preserve and its continued impact to our community in a social media campaign over the next 50 days leading up to April 9 -- the day the ordinance was enacted five decades ago.
We hope you enjoy reading these stories that highlight Napa County’s ongoing role in protecting this historical zoning ordinance and honor one of the most unique land use policies nationwide.
What is the Agricultural Preserve?
The Agricultural Preserve, highlighted in green, is a landmark zoning ordinance that reflects a commitment to agriculture as the “highest and best use” of most of the land outside of the local town and cities.
This means if you have visited Napa County, and traveled along Highway 29 to reach wineries, vineyards, hotels, and restaurants, you’ve been in the Preserve.
The preserve exists because of the visionary leadership and forethought of the Napa County Board of Supervisors and the Planning Commission.
The debate about the ordinance began in 1966 and lasted for two years.
The initial ordinance dictated that agriculture was the only activity allowed in these areas and set minimum lot sizes that prevented further subdivision of parcels, which inhibits urbanization and encourages farming. The 20-acre minimum in the Ag Preserve and 40-acre minimum in the Ag Watershed were later increased to 40 acres and 160 acres, respectively. Initially, the ordinance protected 26,000 acres of land from Napa to Calistoga. Today, 31,609 acres are contained within the preserve, and no land has ever been removed.
It’s why Napa County looks the way it does today.
The 1968 Napa County Board of Supervisors
On April 9, 1968, the Napa County Board of Supervisors passed the ordinance that created the first Agricultural Preserve in the United States and would go into effect 30 days later. This preserved open space and prevented overdevelopment – ensuring that Napa County’s limited resources are preserved for agriculture first and foremost.
Board members at the time were Henry Wigger, Pete Clark, Jack L. Ferguson, Dewey Andersen, and Julius Caiocca.
During a time when news outlets focused on the Vietnam War, the local front pages were dominated by Ag Preserve coverage. More than 200 people voiced their concerns about the new zoning proposal in a standing room only crowd at a Planning Commission meeting in the cafeteria at Redwood Junior High School.
The Ag Preserve discussion was met with opposition from some who felt “…The use of the broad powers of both the Planning Commission and Board of Supervisors should be tempered,” and that the preserve was “brutally unfair and confiscatory zoning,” according to news coverage at the time.
Then-Supervisor Ferguson made the first official motion, seconded by Supervisor Wigger. Ferguson told The Napa Register and the Napa Journal that he felt the ordinance reflected the wishes of a majority of Napa County residents.
“This is a bold forward step for Napa County and perhaps unprecedented in the United States; but I believe it is the expression of the will of the people,” Ferguson told the paper.
“This is being done to preserve the agricultural character of the valley,” said Louis P. Martini in a 1968 KPIX-TV Eyewitness news report. Martini would go to argue that if the Ag Preserve was not passed, the county would look much like Santa Clara Valley with a “very definite and concentrated” population.
The Napa Valley United Farmers would go on to challenge the ordinance in court, and three years later the Superior Court upheld the validity of Ordinance #274.
The 2018 Napa County Board of Supervisors
As enacted in 1990, Measure J amended the Napa County General Plan to ensure that designated agricultural, watershed, and open space lands could not be redesignated and made available for more intensive development without a vote of the people. The California Supreme Court declared that Measure J represented a reasonable attempt to ensure greater stability in land use policy, curb haphazard growth by channeling it toward already developed areas, and promote desired land uses. The Court also found that the voters could and should be trusted to keep the General Plan up to date in the future.
It was a landmark decision confirming the people’s right to enact general plan amendments by initiative.
In 2008, voters approved Measure P, which extended Measure J’s provisions for another 50 years and ensured that its implementation would be flexible enough to make certain that Napa County meets its future obligations under state affordable housing laws.
The adoption of the initiative commemorated the 40th anniversary of the “Agricultural Preserve” zoning designation, reaffirming the County’s long-term commitment to protection of agriculture, open space, watershed lands, and the quality of life that makes Napa County Unique.
As a result of the initiative, the provisions were extended until Dec. 31, 2058. The initiative proponents were Melvyn Varrelman, Ron Taddei, Al Wagner, and Volker Eisele, who also wrote Measure J.
Why Napa County looks the way it does
Pictured above are comparison photos that show the Napa and Santa Clara valleys in 1940 – pre-Ag Preserve and those same locations in 2005 – post-Ag Preserve. Simply put, the Agricultural Preserve is why Napa County looks the way it does today. Because the protections are in place to keep it that way.
The Napa County Agricultural Commissioner's Office
The Napa County Agricultural Commissioner’s Office supports the Ag Preserve through its dedication to sustaining a healthy agricultural industry, while protecting the environment, the agriculture workforce, and the community. Napa County has a reputation as a premier wine-producing region but also has the climate and soils capable of producing many types of exceptional agriculture products.
The Ag Commissioner’s Office is responsible for implementing federal, state, and local regulatory programs within Napa County. These programs include food quality and marketing, pesticide safety, pests and diseases, weights and measures, and wildlife services.
Each year, the office produces the Crop Report, which provides information about the status of agriculture countywide. The report covers the gross production values of crops including fruit & nut, floral & nursery, vegetables, fields, livestock, and poultry & other animal products.
Did you know vineyard crops make up about 9 percent of the 504,450 acres in Napa County?
You can view the report here.
The start of any wine begins with the first touch of the grape.
The Napa County agricultural industry forms the backbone of the local economy, with farmworkers playing an important role in creating and sustaining agricultural production.
Here in Napa County, about 6,000 to 8,000 farmworkers help support the $13 billion wine industry. Napa County supports agricultural workers in many ways including literacy and schooling programs.
But one of the most important ways, perhaps, includes managing three centers that seasonally house 180 farmworkers. Before this temporary housing existed, many workers lived in tents or under bridges – creating a serious public health issue. Money for operations comes from the state budget, a local per-acre annual assessment on vineyards, and daily rent paid by lodgers.
Each center is dormitory-style lodging, and residents get three meals a day, literacy, and other training programs.
Napa County is California’s only provider of farmworker housing fully funded by occupant rent and the industry in partnership with local housing funds.
Buy your plants locally
All incoming plants and other host material originating from areas of pest or disease infestation are thoroughly inspected by the Agricultural Commissioner’s Office to help protect Napa County. The introduction of Glassy-winged Sharpshooter (GWSS) is still a potential threat to the health of grapevines. GWSS can spread Xylella fastidiosa, the pathogen which causes the deadly Pierce’s disease.
Out-of-state shipments may contain pests or diseases of economic importance, such as the Gypsy Moth or Japanese Beetle. The state agricultural border stations notify the Napa County Agricultural Commissioner’s Office of incoming shipments. When shipments arrive, they are inspected for pests, general cleanliness, and compliance with all applicable federal, state, and county regulations.
If pests such as GWSS became established they would be difficult and costly to eradicate and losses would be huge. The repercussions would be felt throughout the community as job losses in the vineyard, winery, and tourism industries.
In 2017, the Ag Commissioner’s Office twice discovered a viable GWSS egg mass during a plant shipment inspection. The best way to keep GWSS out of Napa County is to source landscape plants locally which have been grown in Northern California where the pest is not established.
You can call for inspections when you receive green growing grape vines and landscape plants at 707-253-4357.
Pest Detection Programs