Napa homeowners who thought a controversial hillside housing complex had died more than a decade ago are now girding for a renewed fight.
A developer seeks to revive the Napa Oaks development, the collection of 83 luxury homes it first proposed in 1997 for the oak-lined hills above Old Sonoma Road to the north and Casswall Street on the east. After the project ran into intense opposition from neighbors worried about erosion, traffic and the loss of privacy, the City Council rejected the plan in 2002 and successfully fought off the builder’s resulting lawsuit.
Now, Davidon Homes of Walnut Creek has returned with a downsized version of the community it now bills Napa Oaks II – 53 single-family estate houses on 80.63 rolling acres, ranging from 3,888 to 5,061 square feet each.
An environmental study for the latest revisions, which Davidon filed with city planners in October, is in a 45-day public review period that ends May 11, with a Planning Commission hearing expected as early as July.
A draft of the environmental impact report, compiled by the Oakland consulting firm Lamphier-Gregory, points to various ways for the builder to lessen Napa Oaks II’s effects on erosion, traffic congestion and flooding. But neighbors are resuming their battle against the plan in letters, petitions and social media, questioning whether the city should loosen the property’s strict land-use rules to make the housing possible – and possibly inspire other homebuilders to seek similar concessions elsewhere in the city.
“Do we really need 53 million-dollar homes to spoil those hills?” wrote Elsebeth Schoenberger and Lou Kaplan in a letter to the Register. “… Once those hills are gone – victims of grading and erosion – there is no going back and we would all be the losers and so would our precious fragile environment.”
If Napa signs off on the new homes, “the developer would be rewriting city code to change what is a resource area,” Keith Lindstrom, who has lived east of the Napa Oaks site for a decade, said Thursday. “Do we want to set a precedent of rewriting codes to accommodate a developer?”
City zoning for the hillside originally would have allowed the construction of the several dozen homes Davidon sought. However, a 1998 update of the Napa general plan shifted the parcel into a “resource area” category that requires lots of at least 20 acres for any home, a step the builder asked the city to reverse.
The prospect of large homes on a high and prominent site aroused the suspicion of homeowners on Casswall Street and vineyard owners in Congress Valley to the west, who hired an attorney and signed petitions urging officials to block Napa Oaks. Opponents warned of increased traffic, a higher risk of landslides and surface runoff that could worsen flooding in the streets below the hills.
Davidon came back with a revised plan featuring 63 houses instead of 83, increasing the amount of open space, and lessening the amount of tree removal and grading work. But the City Council voted down Napa Oaks in December 2002, refusing to rezone the land for single-family homes.
The developer sued Napa in 2005 over the rejection, only to have a Napa County Superior Court judge rule in the city’s favor two years later, according to city senior planner Kevin Eberle.
When Davidon announced in 2012 it would revive its housing plan, neighbors urged extensive environmental and traffic studies.
The overhauled design of Napa Oaks II attempts to limit the outside visibility of new houses by concentrating them on parts of the hill that were previously graded decades ago, according to Kevin Teague, a Napa attorney working with the developer.
“We have refined the design to a number of units that is minimally economically feasible,” he wrote Thursday in an email, predicting that the creation of homes on Napa’s margins would relieve pressure to redevelop older parts of the city that would further drive up home prices there.
Apart from the loss of privacy and rural atmosphere, however, Lindstrom warned a housing cluster would raise the danger for drivers entering or leaving the development from Old Sonoma Road, which slopes sharply downward from the west as its speed limit drops entering the city limits.
Trees and brush hug the two-lane roadway as it descends from Congress Valley’s vines toward Lilienthal Avenue opposite Napa Oaks II’s proposed entrance, creating what he said would become dangerous blind spots at the intersection. (The project’s environmental report calls for removing 200 feet of vegetation on Old Sonoma’s south shoulder.)
The developer also seeks an exception to a city code requiring developments of 50 or more homes to have two entrances. While the main entry would be open at all times, a second entry farther west on Old Sonoma would be used only in emergencies, to let fire vehicles in.
Because of the limited access into the complex, the draft environmental study calls for fire resistance features commonly required for housing developments in forested areas, according to city Fire Marshal Darren Drake. To let residents safely stay inside during a nearby fire, homes at Napa Oaks II would require ignition-resistant roofing, siding, window frames and glazes, deck treatments and attic vents, along with a “defensible space” around homes with no combustible plants or other materials.
Another concern mentioned in the environmental study is the presence of fault traces on the site, a point of new significance in the wake of the August 2014 earthquake. The analysis recommended keeping homes at least 25 feet away from a north-to-south fault zone on the west side of the property.
Although the city report states the Davidon site’s deficiencies can be corrected to “less than significant” levels, a recent transplant to the area called for more rigorous studies of the property to ensure it can hold up to future quakes – and not burden firefighters and other safety workers after any natural disaster.
“If you have 50 homes up there and there is devastation, how do you service that devastation?” asked Robert Ross, who in July moved into a home one-eighth mile from the Napa Oaks II site. “How do you get emergency vehicles up there and out again? There’s nothing like Mother Nature to give you a whole new perspective. These are things that need to be talked about in a very scientific, rigorous way.”
Ross, who is collecting signatures for a petition to city officials to slow or stop the project, argued the addition of so many upper-market homes in one place misses the true needs of most Napans.
“It’s not the right kind of housing. Napa doesn’t need that kind of housing,” he said Thursday. “We need more middle-income and lower-income housing in Napa, because we have a real crisis there.
“This will never be Yountville. This will never be St. Helena. It’s just not in the DNA of Napa to be that, and building 53 homes isn’t going to get us there any faster.”