Bounce Back: Tourism in Napa Valley remains strong thanks to the region’s focus on the land

The Napa Valley Ag Preserve protects working landscapes and
Attracts visitors from all over the world

By Brian Russell

Despite the devastating wildfires that recently rocked the region – and much to the delight of businesses that depend on tourism – visitors from around the world continue to flock to Napa Valley, California, one of the premier wine regions in the world.

Over the past five years, Napa County has been ravaged by several major wildfires, each burning tens of thousands of acres and – in some cases – razing entire communities.

The Atlas and Tubbs fires began on October 8, 2017, when high winds downed power lines and sparked fires in Napa and Sonoma counties. This event burned 245,000 acres, caused $14.5 billion in damage, forced 90,000 people to evacuate their homes and created long power outages for 350,000 homes.

Glass fire captured in Calistoga California (Napa Valley)

The LNU Lighting Complex Fire started on August 17, 2020 in Napa Valley and burned for 46 days. This devastating fire destroyed 363,220 acres and 1,441 structures.

The Glass Fire began September 27, 2020 in the hills above St. Helena in Napa County. In total, he demolished 67,484 acres and 1,555 structures, including 308 homes and 343 commercial buildings. The Glass fire incinerated several wineries and wiped out three hotels.

These latest fire emergencies were further complicated by the COVID-19 pandemic, which shut down most businesses in the state months earlier. Between the lockdown and fire-related evacuations, Napa Valley was effectively put on hold. No one was rushing to fill their diaries.

The economy is recovering

Instead of being weighed down, however, Napa Valley’s economy rebounded – with conviction – from these unforeseen and devastating events. While several parts of the valley still show signs of the fires, such as blackened trees or charred and empty house foundations, visitors from near and far still firmly believe that Napa Valley is one of the most popular in the world.

Today, Napa Valley’s economy is healthy. The region produces nearly 50 million cases of wine per year and contributes $50 billion to the total US economy. Napa’s economic health is also evidenced by two new upscale hotels that opened this year, each with rooms starting around $1,000 a night. Data from the recent Smith Travel Research report shows that average daily rates for Napa Valley hotels have jumped over the past two years and occupancy is high.

The steady stream of visitors coming to experience the area, despite major setbacks from natural disasters and the pandemic, begs the question: what really draws people to Napa Valley? Yes, the area has great restaurants and amazing wines, but what really draws people to visit the valley is its natural beauty.

The magnificence of Napa Valley lies in its spectacular scenery and lush vineyards, which draw people to the area. What few visitors realize is that these vistas might not exist today without the Napa Valley Agricultural Preserve.

Ag Preserve sets the standard

Started in 1968 by the Napa County Board of Supervisors and the Napa County Planning Commission, the Napa Valley Agricultural Preserve protects the Napa Valley agricultural region.

Napa Vineyards and HillsThe purpose of the reservation is to conserve rich land in the area for agricultural use and to prevent developers from converting agricultural zoned land to housing or other urban uses. This objective is set forth in the first section of the ordinance, which states: “This district classification is intended for application in the fertile valley and foothills regions of Napa County, from Napa to Calistoga, in which the agriculture is and should continue to be the predominant use of land, where uses incompatible with agriculture should be excluded and where the development of urban-type uses would be detrimental to the continuation of agriculture and the maintenance of spaces that are economic and aesthetic attributes and assets of Napa County.

To make farmland economically unattractive to developers, policy makers decided to prevent the formation of small plots to discourage development. The Napa County code states that the minimum parcel size at the bottom of the valley must be 40 acres; in the hillsides, the minimum plot size is 160 acres.

Duckhorn Estate in Napa, California
Duckhorn Estate in Napa, California

Overall, this planning policy worked. Through smart, forward-thinking land use planning, the majority of Napa Valley remains agricultural. For more than 50 years, no major development has been built in Napa Valley.

The creation of the Ag Preserve in Napa Valley was groundbreaking legislation, as it was the first agriccultural preserve of United States history. Without a doubt, the Ag Preserve’s foresight has helped Napa Valley remain an agricultural gem that continues to attract visitors from around the world.

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Brian Russell, Hanson Bridgett LLP
Brian Russell, Hanson Bridgett LLP

Brian Russell

Brian Russell is an attorney at Hanson Bridgett LLP. He has nearly two decades of experience representing Napa and Sonoma wineries and hospitality businesses in all real estate, corporate and licensing matters. His areas of practice include business, real estate, land use, CEQA, water and natural resource rights, trademarks and municipal law. Brian has advised clients on contract negotiations, real estate acquisitions, liquor licensing, drafting purchase agreements, creating entities and securing land use rights in Napa and of Sonoma. Additionally, Brian advises clients on property due diligence, resolved zoning issues and land purchase agreements. He can be reached at [email protected] or (707) 512-5255.

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