Napa Envy: Sprawl 

Foes of sprawl in Livermore want wineries to save the day.

For now, the peaceful rectangle of golden grassland is a no man's land, the last undeveloped property between the foothills of Mt. Diablo and the suburban sprawl of Livermore. Interstate 580's creeping traffic serves as a line in the sand, dividing the golden terrain from a dense commercial zone where Home Depot rubs shoulders with OfficeMax and In-N-Out Burger. "It really is the last frontier," said Livermore's mayor, Marshall Kamena.

For more than thirty years, slow-growth advocates such as Kamena have fought to keep bulldozers off this frontier. They thought they'd finally won in 2000, when Alameda County voters approved an urban growth boundary that made the land off-limits for most development. Seen as a check upon sprawl at a time of incessant demand for new housing, such boundaries can only be changed with voter approval, and have flourished in the Bay Area since Oregon adopted the first one in 1973.

But establishing a development perimeter in Livermore did not provide supporters of open space with the peace of mind they expected. Five years later, the valley is once again a battleground. City residents will vote next month on an initiative that would annex 1,400 acres in North Livermore and then permit construction of 2,450 houses. With county and city governments unable to approve such developments on their own, Pardee Homes is going straight to the voters for permission to develop land that many residents thought they already had protected for good. Government officials disdainfully call this "ballot-box planning."

There's more at stake than just one plot of land in North Livermore. The Home Builders Association of Northern California recently extolled Pardee's approach as "a fresh strategy" for developers to use to build more housing in the growth-wary Bay Area. In an article in Bay Area Home Builder, an association official lauded this tactic as the model for a new era in which "large master-planned communities will often have to go to the ballot for approval."

Opponents of the development make several familiar-sounding arguments: that it would spoil the scenery, dump too many cars on the already clogged highways, and force a tax increase to fund the expansion of city services. But open-space advocates have a fresh strategy of their own. They aren't simply trying to keep the landscape undeveloped or prevent property owners from making a return on their investment. Instead, they're pushing for a new kind of farmland -- upscale and tourist-friendly -- as the key to a bold, modern city. In place of the waving grasses of today's North Livermore, they envision an agricultural solution tailored to fit the prosperous towns of the Tri-Valley: groves of olive and pistachio trees, rows of strawberries and boysenberries, and, most importantly, neat vines of chardonnay and cabernet sauvignon.

It's all part of a larger project: the city's reinvention of itself from a sleepy suburban research town to the heart of the "Livermore Valley Wine Region." The campaign has forged some unusual partnerships. Environmentalists, vineyard owners, and champions of sustainable agriculture are teaming up with the mayor and even some business interests in their fight for open space. Their alliance is based upon a realization that was late to dawn upon open-space advocates.

"You're kidding yourself if you think you're going to have a successful urban growth boundary without having something profitable on the other side of that line," said Tom O'Malley, president of the Tri-Valley Business Council. The pressures in favor of development are too strong to resist, and the land adjacent to most growth boundaries is too valuable to be left alone.

For precisely that reason, a growing number of open-space advocates now believe that establishing farms outside a growth boundary is the final step in smart city planning. The idea behind this thinking is that farmland can do what boundaries can't do alone: stop sprawl and provide permanent open space by meeting community needs and giving landowners a way to make a profit.

"It makes no sense to plan a city, but leave the area outside the city limits unplanned," said O'Malley's unlikely ally, Sibella Kraus of Sustainable Agriculture Education, a Berkeley nonprofit. "It creates a vacuum that's actively sucking cities outward."

Livermore's roots in viticulture go back to its founding, when Robert Livermore planted the first vines in the valley in 1846. Over the ensuing years, the tradition has been carefully tended by a handful of Livermore loyalists.

Charles Wetmore of the now-defunct Cresta Blanca Winery was the biggest early booster of Livermore's wines. He gathered cuttings from famed French vines, ran a one-man publicity campaign that convinced other viticulturists to stake their claims in Livermore, and sent his bottles to the Paris Exhibition of 1889, where his Sauvignon Blanc won a gold medal and the Grand Prix. It was the first such award won by an American winemaker.

The region thrived, thanks to a few wine-making families who believed in the valley's promise, led by the Wente and Concannon families, both of which established wineries in 1883. Around the turn of the last century, the region had more acres in grapes -- 15,000 -- than either Napa or Sonoma. But Prohibition struck a blow. The big wineries kept up their vines and some shifted production to altar wine, but smaller operations folded, and the region never recovered. After the repeal of Prohibition, development began pushing out agriculture. While farmers in the mostly rural Napa and Sonoma regions turned to grapes, Livermore's leaders shifted their attention to housing workers brought in by the new Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, which opened in 1952.

Development pressures threatened to force out even the biggest, most established vineyards several times, said Phil Wente, vice-chairman of Wente Vineyards. "In the early '60s, the threat was strong enough for us to begin buying land in the Salinas Valley, with the anticipation of moving our operations there 100 percent," he said. As housing shortages and the skyrocketing population of the Bay Area drove up land values, the Wentes were being taxed out of business.

But the deeply rooted family made a commitment to the region, and worked successfully with the state legislature to reform the tax codes. Then, in the late 1980s, the Wentes encouraged the establishment of more small vineyards in the region, hoping for a critical mass that would get the appellation noticed.


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