top of page


Napa County’s Most Important Element
prepared by James A. Hickey (c. 2008)

Today, agriculture is king in the Napa Valley, but it wasn’t always a given that the industry would be the guiding force of this region. In fact, anyone who makes their home in the Napa Valley owes an enormous debt of gratitude to the 1968 Board of Supervisors and Planning Commission for their vision in establishing the Agricultural Preserve, and bears the responsibility of ensuring that we honor their actions and continue their legacy through continued preservation of agricultural lands in Napa County. In 2008 legislation to extend the protection for agricultural lands through the continuation of the Ag Preserve will be placed in the hands of the voters, and once again citizens of Napa County will be called on to decide the future of our region.

The Napa County Agricultural Preserve, designed to protect the Napa Valley, was established in 1968 by the Napa county Board of Supervisors and the Napa County Planning Commission. The Goal of the Preserve was spelled out in the first section of the ordinance creating the Preserve.

“This district classification is intended to be applied in the fertile valley and foothill areas of Napa County in which agriculture is and should continue to be the predominant land use, where uses incompatible to agriculture should be precluded and where development of urban type uses would be detrimental to the continuance of agriculture and the maintenance of open spaces which are economic and aesthetic attributes and assets of the County of Napa.”

The ordinance was adopted by a unanimous vote of the Planning Commission on January 15, 1968 and by the Board of Supervisors on April 9, 1968. The Board’s and Commission’s actions would change forever the future of Napa County. N.D. (Pete) Clark, a member of the Board of Supervisors when the Agricultural Preserve was established, was asked at the time of his retirement what he believed was the single most important action taken by the Board during his six terms as a member. “The creation of the Ag Preserve,” he said, “Was the the most important action taken by the Board in the past twenty-five years.”

Many residents of the Valley today feel that the creation of the Preserve was also the most important action taken by the Board in the forty years that followed. During the past 40 years, the basic theme of the Preserve, “agriculture is the highest and best use of the land,” has been expanded into the county’s General Plan and all of the related land use regulation ordinances. “Urban uses belong in urban areas” became a popular planning and political way of saying that agriculture is the highest and best use of the land in the Napa Valley. However you want to say it, the Preserve was here to stay.

Who came up with the idea first? What organization(s) or individual(s) did the most to move the county to take the necessary actions to create the Preserve? Ask anyone in the Valley and you will probably get a different answer every time. A number of individuals and organizations did play key roles in the process. But in the end, it was the Board and the Commission who moved the concept from the ideal to the real. Without them it would have been just another idea that somebody should have done something about.

The ordinance pending before the Board and the commission in early 1968 would protect 23,000 acres of agricultural land located along the floor of the Napa Valley stretching from Napa to Calistoga. Agriculture in the county in 1968 included walnuts, prunes, cattle and grapes. “Prunes and walnuts were going to hell.” Said Julius Caiocca, Chairman of the Board of Supervisors in 1968. “And people were saying grapes would do the same.” Fewer than sixty-five wineries were operating in the Valley and the wine boom was many years away.”


The decision to move agriculture ahead of every other potential land use in the Valley was not overwhelmingly popular at the time. The first public hearing held by the Board on the concept in draft ordinance form lasted more than three hours. The crowd attending the heading was so large that the hearing had to be held in the Ridgeview Junior High School gymnasium. Large crowds, long meetings and heated emotions became the hallmarks for the proposed Agricultural Preserve program.

The adoption of the ordinance was immediately challenged by unhappy property owners in the courts as being unconstitutional and discriminatory. The county won favorable decisions in both the Superior Court and Court of Appeals levels. The Board of Supervisors also received a Special Merit Award from the California Chapter of the American Institute of Planners for the innovative character of the Agricultural Preserve, and also a lot of news media attention.

A second action that was equally as controversial as establishing the Preserve concept as part of the zoning ordinance was the actual rezoning of 23,000 acres of Valley land to the new classification. Whose property was to be placed inside the boundaries of a new district that made agriculture the highest and best use and increased the parcel size from a minimum of one acre to twenty acres? Where would the lines be drawn? Once again, long meetings, large crowds and strong emotions became the order of the day.


While the total acceptance of the Agricultural Preserve was many years away, the action to establish the second Preserve, 2,200 acres in Wooden Valley in June of 1969 generated little public interest, and little opposition and no legal challenges.


Whether the action taken by the county in 1968 was a major factor in the meteoric growth of the wine industry that occurred in the years that followed or whether the booming wine industry that followed validated the Board’s and Commission’s decisions is not really important today. What is important for the county and this celebration is that 40 years ago 12 citizens of Napa County (five members of the Board of Supervisors and seven members of the County’s Planning Commission) had the wisdom, the foresight and the courage to take an action that was not popular at the time but was, without doubt, the right one for the county’s future.

The action they took then forever changed the future of Napa County. In the years since that action was taken, while the Agricultural Preserve has been expanded in several areas, not one acre of land has ever been removed from the Preserve or rezoned for a non-agricultural use. The Agricultural Preserve remains the dominant feature of the county’s General Plan, Zoning Ordinance and the political landscape.

That single idea: “agriculture is the highest and best use of the land” – wrapped in the legal form of an ordinance and sustained by the citizens of Napa County, the wine industry and local government – has preserved in the past and ensured in the future the preservation of one of the most beautiful valleys in the world.

1968 Board of Supervisors
Julius Caiocca (Chair)
Dewey Andersen
N.D. (Pete) Clark
Jack Ferguson
Henry Wigger


1968 Planning Commission
Felix Vandershoot (Chair)
George Blaufuss
J.H. Bentley
Fred Berry
Kent B. Ingalls
Don McFarland
Andrew Pelissa


bottom of page