For more than a century, our country set aside land for national parks, scenic byways and recreation areas, but never for agriculture. That changed in 1968 with the establishment of the Napa Valley Agricultural Preserve, the first of its kind in the United States.

This year is the 50th anniversary of that act. You only need to look around the valley to recognize its success: it is lush with grapevines, not tract housing and shopping malls.

If the Ag Preserve hadn’t succeeded, there’s little doubt that Napa Valley would have gone the way of Santa Clara Valley, which was once called the Valley of Heart’s Delight for its orchards and vines long before it became a symbol for technology and urban development

If Napa Valley hadn’t been saved, a major divided highway would run through what are now some of the world’s finest vineyards. Yountville, St. Helena and Calistoga would be a sea of housing development and their quaint downtowns most likely bypassed and largely unused.

Instead, Napa Valley is America’s premier wine destination, and its communities offer the lifestyle that both residents and visitors value so highly.

As the Bay Area prospered after World War II, progress inevitably spread. In those days, Napa County was better known for its mental health facility at Napa State Hospital than for wine grapes.

But, local landowners and farmers could see development creeping toward them. The state of California talked of building a major highway through the valley while planners placed the Bay Area’s fourth major airport in the marshes south of Carneros.

In 1968, encouraged by a small group of vintners and growers, the county enacted changes in its regulatory code that implemented the agricultural preserve.

The best-known part is called the Napa Valley Agricultural Preserve and lies primarily in the valley between the cities of Napa and Calistoga with other pockets around the county. It originally protected 26,000 acres and has since grown to more than 32,000 acres.

Beyond the protection of the valley floor, the county also designated a huge area as “Agriculture, Watershed and Open Space,” which is also preserved, and in some ways, even more so. Together, the two protect more than 90 percent of the county’s 505,859 acres.

Thanks to the Agricultural Preserve, agriculture remains the leading source of revenue in Napa County — unlike other Bay Area counties where farmland has largely been displaced by development.

In 1990 voters approved Measure J, which requires a two-thirds vote of the county’s citizens to rezone any agricultural land. In 2008, Measure J was extended and enhanced by the passage of Measure P, granting widespread and vital protections to Napa County’s ag land through 2058.

The resistance to rezoning attempts clearly reflects the desire of Napa County residents to maintain the integrity of the Ag Preserve. Challenges to the measure have historically been condemned as the first steps to weaken the protection and have been soundly defeated.Napa Valley continues to maintain its commitment to agriculture. The county sets very high priorities on the Ag Preserve and its most recent General Plan states clearly: “Napa County in 2030 will remain a world-famous grape growing and winemaking region, with a viable and sustainable agricultural industry. New non-agricultural development will continue to be focused in the incorporated cities and already developed areas.”

Looming in the future is the sunset in 2058 of measure P, which forces zoning changes to a vote of the people. Coming decades will be spent convincing voters to uphold that protection—and perhaps make it permanent. As the Agricultural Preserve achieves its first 50-year milestone, these steps are sure to be part of the continuing effort to maintain Napa as a community devoted to agriculture — some would say, paradise.


Article by: Paul Franson