As Napa city officials near a possible decision in the two-decade tug of war over 51 homes planned near Old Sonoma Road and Casswall Street, a developer on Tuesday again tried to make the case for the project to dozens of skeptical neighbors worried about future traffic, storm drainage and quality of life.

The latest pitch by Davidon Homes drew more than 70 Napans to a forum at nearby Harvest Middle School, where Steve Abbs, the firm’s vice president for land acquisition and development, urged residents to welcome design and layout changes he said would make the hillside housing complex more discreet, and less burdensome, to those living and driving nearby.

Tweaks to the project known as Napa Oaks II include the replacement of two homes by a trailhead and small park, as well as two miles of trails, forest protection easements, and even a traffic roundabout at the development’s main entrance to slow dangerously fast vehicles coming downhill on Old Sonoma Road from Congress Valley in the unincorporated county just west.

“We want to give this property to the city,” Abbs said of the planned improvements. “We want to open it up to the community so you can enjoy the land and its amenities.”

Abbs further promised that Davidon will give $1.2 million to the Gasser Foundation to add affordable housing elsewhere in Napa, as well as pay for a 2/3-mile water main extension from Browns Valley to improve fire protection and water pressure.

Changes of heart among audience members, however, appeared scarce, with various neighbors pointedly dismissing the wisdom of adding houses and streets – however carefully arranged – to the hill rising south of Old Sonoma Road near Napa’s western border. Placed beside a few spectators in the school meeting hall were red-letter placards reading: “Stop Napa Oaks hillside subdivision … again!”

The promises by Davidon to preserve woodlands, add open space and protect hillsides failed to impress opponents such as Eve Ryser. “It’s disingenuous to say that in order to conserve, you have to develop,” Ryser, a Foster Road resident, told Abbs. “Those things don’t add up.”

The forum took place ahead of a Dec. 7 meeting at which the city’s Planning Commission is expected to review Napa Oaks II, which has been downsized and reconfigured since a City Council veto 15 years ago and an unsuccessful lawsuit by Davidon to force zoning changes clearing a path for the homes. If planners endorse the development, the current council would have the final say on its approval.

Once planned to hold 83 houses on cattle pastures overlooking the city and nearby vineyards, the Napa Oaks plan has been gradually pared down by its backers through years of applications, city reviews, and neighbor petitions seeking to block it.

After a new city general plan in 1998 rezoned the hill as a “resource area” banning home lots smaller than 20 acres, Davidon reduced the number of homes to 63, added more open space and promised to remove fewer trees. But Napa stood firm against allowing denser construction, and the City Council rejected the plan in 2002. A 2005 suit by Davidon in Napa County Superior Court failed to overturn the refusal.

The developer filed plans in 2015 for a downsized renamed Napa Oaks II, which city staff reviewed and presented for public comment the following year. Houses in the revised 53-home layout were concentrated on areas graded level or flattened for roads by previous owners in the 1960s, a step Davidon leaders said will lessen the loss of woodlands and screen more homes away from surrounding neighborhoods.

On Tuesday, much of Davidon’s case for Napa Oaks II focused on nature preservation and traffic safety.

New to the plan is a roundabout to replace the intersection of Old Sonoma Road and Lilienthal Avenue, where the main entrance is to be built. The roundabout would slow vehicles to about 15 mph, with flashing beacons alerting motorists in both directions on Old Sonoma.

On the Napa Oaks grounds – currently a rough-hewn mix of cattle pastures, groves and rutted grassy paths with orange cones marking future cul-de-sacs – more than 47 acres are to remain oak-covered to protect view corridors, and Davidon would work with the Napa County Resource Conservation District to bring its Acorn to Oaks education program onto the complex to encourage more tree plantings. The project’s trails, park and open spaces will be open to the public, according to Abbs.

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Still, many audience members remained less than mollified.

One of the neighborhood’s newest residents compared its traffic flow – even without Napa Oaks II and its possible rotary gateway – unfavorably to the metropolis she had left behind only three weeks earlier.

“I lived in Portland, Oregon, in the heart of the city, and I can’t believe the traffic on that street,” said Sally Sparling. “It’s already like sleeping by the freeway now, and I can’t imagine what it’ll be life when you have more homes – and you know every home will have three cars.”

Homeowners on Casswall, Idaho Street and nearby routes revived concerns about an increase in runoff and flooding risks with the arrival of hillside homes, although Abbs replied state law will require Napa Oaks II’s stormwater drainage basin and pipes to leave runoff on the property no greater than in its natural state.

Others predicted that Davidon’s various aspirations for the project – smoother transportation, public access to open space, and peace and quiet for future residents – would prove contradictory in the end.

“I don’t understand the logic here: new pathways so that people who don’t even live there can go through there,” said Frank Varni of Old Sonoma Road. “The one lesson my father taught me was not to buy a house next to a park. Thank you for making that come true.”

Abbs estimated that home prices will range from about $1.2 million to $2 million, with construction lasting up to 3 ½ years after city approval.

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City of Napa/Town of Yountville Reporter

Howard Yune covers the city of Napa and the town of Yountville. He has been a reporter and photographer for the Register since 2011, and previously wrote for the Marysville Appeal-Democrat, Anaheim Bulletin and Coos Bay (Oregon) World.