Many historic structures within the Napa Valley are majestic, such as Inglenook, Charles Krug and the Culinary Institute at Greystone. But one of them — the Rutherford depot — has become a dilapidated eyesore.

The historic train depot flanks Highway 29 in the tiny hamlet of Rutherford. It was originally built in the 1870s, and its history is inextricably linked with the valley’s rise to prominence. The structure’s decay is heartbreaking to those who know of its glorious past and confusing to those who question why the disintegrating structure is not just rebuilt or torn down.

“There is so much history contained in that one small structure that it would be a shame not to see it rise again,” said Steve Tonella, a third-generation Rutherfordian and vintner who is a member of the Rutherford Dust Society.

The Napa Valley Wine Train owns the Rutherford Depot. Since purchasing the Napa Valley Wine Train from the DeDomenico family in 2015, the property is now co-owned by Scott Goldie and Gregory Brun. In 2019 the NVWT submitted an application to Napa County to renovate the Rutherford Station to include a train stop, a parking area and a refurbished structure that would include a wine-tasting area, retail food sales, a ticket counter and “activities related to the Wine Train’s rail operations.”

Speaking in 2018 on the “Napa Valley Inside Out” podcast, Goldie said, “We’ve been working with the county to develop the appropriate use of [the Rutherford Depot] that will allow us the economic incentive to restore it.”

On the one hand, this seems like it should be simple: The owners want to fix up the space, and many in the community long for such improvements. However, the site has lain dormant for more than two decades, and a quick resolution remains unlikely.

At the heart of the issue is that this failing rail station — now with gaping holes in the roof that have been partially covered by tattered tarps, a barely standing cyclone fence hardly warding off would-be vagrants and the old redwood-planked platform a crumbling reminder of better days — exists on land that falls under the Napa Valley’s Agricultural Preserve. Consequently, any renovations or changes of use are tightly regulated, with the conversion of such buildings or land to a non-farm use requiring a popular vote.

The Ag Preserve

The 1950 census showed Napa County having 46,603 residents, and because of its proximity to the Bay Area the state of California estimated that by 1980 the county would be home to more than 1 million. A decade after that dire prediction, in 1965, Assembly Bill 80 passed and decoupled the tax rate from revenue generated from the land, instead of taxing parcels at their “highest and best use.” In practice, this often meant land was taxed as if it were covered with houses and businesses instead of agricultural crops.

Napa Valley’s residents understood what the passage of the AB80 could mean to their agricultural community — a likely speeding-up of converting agricultural land into subdivisions and strip malls. And they had good reason for concern. Silicon Valley to the south was witnessing the rapid removal of nearly 100,000 acres of orchard land.

Driven by what they viewed as an existential threat to their agrarian lifestyle and their desire to preserve the natural beauty of the Napa Valley, a cohort of like-minded local leaders banded together and in February 1968 passed the groundbreaking Napa Valley Agricultural Preserve. This legislation restricted the use of agricultural land within the county, limiting subdivisions of land to a minimum of 20 acres (now 40), rather than the one acre allowed at the time.

Today, of Napa County’s 505,000 acres, nearly 45,000 are covered with cultivated vineyards that brought in over $1 billion in 2018. However, in 1968 the valley was a very different place. Then there were only 13,836 acres of planted vineyards and wine grapes brought in $6 million, whereas beef cattle amounted to $5.9 million.

The point of the original Agricultural Preserve (a four-page document) was not so much to promote vineyards or the wine industry but instead to guard against unconstrained development by creating a zoning designation that favored agricultural use. Preferences included “general farming,” “facilities for the processing of agricultural products,” and “public parks and recreation facilities” that complied with the Napa County General Plan as well as a few other categories, such as animal husbandry and dairies.

Shortly after the AP passed, state officials announced the cancellation of plans to build a freeway stretching up the Napa Valley, and many housing subdivisions were taken off the planning schedule.

The limits of Napa County’s Agricultural Preserve ping-ponged back and forth in terms of how large a parcel was needed before it might be subdivided. The original version set the minimum at 20 acres, but in 1979 the county raised it to 40 acres, then back to 20, then again to 40. Presently, with Measure J passed in 1990 and its successor, Measure P, in 2008, the legal 40-acre minimum remains in effect until 2058. Any change of use must be OK’d by a vote of the people.

Some people have always opposed the Agricultural Preserve. When it was passed they called it an affront to freedom and un-American. A month earlier John Daniel, the former owner of Inglenook, had called it “socialistic in concept” and “destructive to future land development and business, confiscatory and grossly unfair.”

Even with the objections, the Board of Supervisors enacted the agricultural preserve with a 4-0 vote (a majority of Republicans held the board at the time), with one supervisor abstaining. Since then the Agricultural Preserve has been at the center of conflicts within the Napa Valley and beyond, with those who see any change to its wording or intent as opening cracks that would be exploited by developers and others who see it as stifling business and hindering affordable housing (although such arguments might be refuted by anyone trying to find affordable housing in Silicon Valley).

Decisions about the Agricultural Preserve and changes to the Rutherford Station depot remain in a stalemate between those seeing any change in use as a precedent-setting erosion of the original intent of the Agricultural Preserve and those who feel restoring a historic building might be a reasonable exception.

A short history of the Rutherford Depot

In July 1864 17-year-old Elizabeth Yount received a gift from her grandfather, George. His gift was 1,040 acres of land north of Yountville that had already been planted with wheat, a few orchards and possibly a vineyard or two.

George Yount, an explorer and pioneer, had been the first Euro-American permanent settler in the Napa Valley. With the help of his employer and friend, Gen. Mariano G. Vallejo, Yount had been granted two Mexican land grants: the Rancho Caymus land grant (11,887 acres) in 1836 and the Rancho La Jota land grant (4,454 acres) on Howell Mountain in 1843. Rancho Caymus resided between what are today Oakville and Rutherford.

Around that same time another prominent Napa Valley resident, Samuel Brannan (California’s first millionaire), financed and built an extension of a railroad from Napa City to Calistoga. Brannan’s idea was to transport customers to his new hot springs resort in Calistoga and goods from the valley to the rapidly expanding Bay Area.

Brannan became rich after he helped whip up excitement in San Francisco after gold was found at Sutter’s Mill in 1848. In a move that seemed to some unscrupulous, he waited to announce the gold’s finding until after he’d bought up all the mining supplies in the region and sold them through his own shops at astronomical prices.

The result of the subsequent gold rush was the greatest mass migration in U.S. history. In 1850, when California became an official state, it only had roughly 20,000 non-Native American inhabitants, but by 1855 that had grown to more than 300,000. The flood of people had made staples such as lumber, firewood, flour, mercury, dairy, meat and produce exceptionally lucrative commodities.

The influx caused the flour market to expand rapidly, with the price skyrocketing from $6 a barrel to nearly $30. Thomas Rutherford had immigrated to San Francisco in 1852 to mill flour at the perfect moment. A few years earlier he had left Lawrence County, New York, with the idea of starting a mill on the West Coast. Eventually, he co-owned the Grosh & Rutherford Flour Mill in San Francisco, which later moved to the city of Napa.

It’s likely that Rutherford and Elizabeth Yount met as a result of their shared business dealings in wheat. In 1867 they wed, and soon after they negotiated with Brannan to build the Rutherford Station depot as a platform for transporting goods and also as a more convenient method of transport for themselves as they traveled between their homes in San Francisco and their ranch at what they called Rutherford Station (now Rutherford).

Eventually, the small depot would see less and less wheat, replaced instead by everything from thousands of white mulberry trees used in a short-lived fad of growing silkworms to homeless boys from San Francisco arriving to attend the archdiocese-run “Rutherford Agricultural School” to plenty of wine and wine-industry related items. Two train cars full of the first phylloxera-resistant St. George rootstock clones shipped from France in 1909 to Beaulieu Winery at the bequest of George de Latour. More history of early Rutherford can be found in “A Rutherford Farm” by Cecelia Elkington Setty, published in 2014.

Passenger service on the railroad ended in the 1930s as cars became the preferred mode of transportation. Gone, too, was the supply and demand of the natural commodities that had once filled freight cars destined for Bay Area consumers. Since those heady days when the Rutherford Depot had a distinct purpose, the structure has housed a few businesses, including a plumbing shop and an architect, but since 2001 the building has remained vacant.

The previous owners of the Wine Train, the DeDomenico family, inventors of Rice-A-Roni, had tried and failed to renovate the Rutherford Station. In 2011 the county proposed an ordinance allowing a restaurant, lodging or retail use at the Rutherford depot and five other rural landmarks, but the Board of Supervisors canceled a scheduled vote that December.

The Rutherford Depot is emblematic of a uniquely Napa Valley issue with no easy answers

To research this story I reached out to dozens of people in an effort to wrap my head around what initially appeared to be a straightforward matter. Very few wanted to go on record, citing little interest for becoming wrapped up in a controversy that might require taking sides as the valley slowly emerges from the pandemic and one of the worst fire seasons on record.

“There are three ways this will go,” one of them told me. “It turns into a big battle that goes to a public vote that will cost millions and continue to fracture the community, or the public has become so beaten down that this thing slips through the county somehow without triggering a popular vote, or the owners decide they have bigger fish to fry and just put the poor thing out of its misery and tear it down.”

Or, as Supervisor Diane Dillon, whose 3rd District includes Rutherford and the rest of the Highway 29 corridor upvalley, said during a 2018 interview with the Napa Register:

“It would be wonderful to see that building reused and restored. (But) for every decision we make like this one, we need to look at the bigger picture, the broader context. And there are a lot of issues involved here.”

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