An industrial lot on the Napa River is the epicenter of a stormy debate about the wine county's future.
With its hanger-sized warehouses and waterside cranes, the 154-acre Napa Pipe site hardly looks like the ground floor of a high-density, mixed-use development. But Napa-based developer Rogal + Walsh + Mol is proposing just such a makeover, with a plan that includes condos, shops and entertainment venues, as well as water taxis, employment shuttles and trails. The development's website, A Home for Napans, offers to cut greenhouse gasses by providing homes for Napa County workers who can't currently afford to live in the grape valley, with a reminder that under California housing laws, Napa has an obligation to supply those needed residences.
As the Napa County Board of Supervisors prepares to consider the project on June 11, Napa's city manager Mike Parness has voiced strong opposition to the proposed development, which falls just outside the town's borders.
"I don't think it's smart growth," he says, pointing out that although the project plans for 40,000 feet of retail space and 50,000 feet of office space, which would theoretically keep residents on-site, he believes the traffic and financial impact of placing a high-density development beyond the town's rural-urban limit is counterintuitive.
Though the development would fall on county property, it's directly bordered on three sides by city land. Developer Keith Rogal points out that for the roughly 29,000 workers currently driving into the county, it could actually mean far less commuter pollution on Napa's highways. According to a memorandum prepared by county planner Hillary Gitelman, utilizing the property under its current industrial zoning—and bringing in workers from 9 to 5—would create more congestion on Highway 29 than using the space for residential purposes.
Meanwhile, the number of homes Napa will need to provide its workforce in the coming years has been sliding around like beads on an abacus, and the changing figures have some Napa officials questioning the necessity of a large development.
Each Bay Area municipality is supposed to look ahead and zone for projected population growth via a process called the Housing Element Update, which is theoretically regulated by the state Department of Housing and Community Development (HCD). The figure, known as the RHNA number, is given cyclically to local governments by an organization called the Association of Bay Area Governments, or ABAG.
Unincorporated Napa County was supposed to zone for over 600 units of housing in its last Housing Element Update cycle, and was originally supposed to zone for over 700 units in the coming cycle, but the number recently plummeted to 74, then rose to around 180. And despite the out-of-county commute numbers, the amount of housing in all of Napa County—not just the unincorporated part—that will need to be built in the future has dropped from the last cycle as well.
Napa County supervisor Mark Luce is the president of ABAG, and he attributes the numbers' roller-coaster dive to a calculation error on ABAG's part. He calls the process of allocating numbers for each municipality a "black box," but believes that lower numbers are more realistic for the slow-growth, agricultural county.
"The RHNA allocation that we're seeing now is more likely to be built," he says. "We want a plan that actually gets implemented when all's said and done."
Luce has said that he's in favor of a plan that would allow Napa Pipe to be developed with 350 homes on it, a density far lower than the developer's proposal of 2,050 homes and the Napa County Planning Commission's recommendation of up to 945 homes. However, at such a low density, Luce admits that any housing is unlikely to actually see construction, possibly creating just the letter-of-the-law procedure he currently faults RHNA with.
"We have a legal obligation we need to follow," he says, adding that what he calls the "broken process" of zoning for housing that is unlikely to be built will hopefully be corrected with what he views as a lower, more realistic RHNA.
But affordable-housing advocates argue that, despite the official numbers, low- to moderate-income homes are desperately needed in Napa.
David Grabill is an attorney specializing in fair-housing law who's filed several lawsuits against Napa County, most recently for adopting a Housing Element that was not sanctioned by HCD. With 20 percent of the Napa Pipe project set aside as below-market rate units and thousands of farmworkers commuting into Napa every day, Grabill argues that the county can't afford not to adopt the proposed development. At a recent planning commission meeting, a young woman working in the county's hospitality industry agreed.
"The housing crisis in Napa County is one of the most significant problems our county has faced in recent years," she said, adding, "We need a long-term solution."