On Nov. 4, voters in the city of Napa will face a complex “yes or no” vote on the multi-faceted Napa Pipe project
With the City Council finalizing a ballot measure last week that will ask voters to move the city’s development boundary to include Napa Pipe, local officials say the real work of educating the public has begun.
“There is a lack of clarity about what the rural urban limit (RUL) line, the sphere of influence and the city limits truly are,” said Councilwoman Juliana Inman. “These are government terms that we are going to have to explain. We have these — in some cases — arcane lines on a map and most people aren’t aware of what they are and what they really mean.”
Indeed, as the city has embarked on the long road of trying to annex the proposed 154-acre Napa Pipe development site into city limits, the planning jargon has confused some members of the public. Eve Kahn, local real estate agent and chairwoman of the Napa group Get a Grip on Growth, said that many people are wondering what they will voting on come November.
“There isn’t really anyone – outside (the City Council and city staff) – who understands the difference between moving the RUL and annexation,” she said. “Some of the issues that have come up are things like, will this expansion set a precedent? I’ve had people call me and ask if this is going to happen on Salvador (Avenue), on Big Ranch (Road), or on Dry Creek (Road). There’s a layer of confusion.”
While the planning issues may seem complex, the elements of the Napa Pipe development seem clear enough to some: Up to 945 new residences, a Costco, a 150-room hotel, a 150-unit senior living facility and other retail, commercial and office space. The project is expected to be built in stages over many years.
When it comes to city planning, there are several overarching documents that guide Napa’s long-term goals. The Napa General Plan, in particular, governs city limits and future development sites. Napa’s current general plan lasts through 2020 and was last updated in 2011.
In the massive document, which typically takes years to compile, the city outlines its goals for development, including areas of the county that are eventually planned to become a part of city limits. Properties within city limits are subject to city laws and usually receive city services like utilities, police and fire support and infrastructure upkeep.
But because the city’s official limits were drawn somewhat arbitrarily, often related to water easements and utility provisions, there are parcels of land that are county-governed but completely surrounded by city land. Since these islands can lead to a disruption of service and emergency response, it is the city’s and county’s goal to annex such land into city limits. The Napa Pipe site, which sits on the eastern banks of the Napa River, along Kaiser Road, and is surrounded by the city on three sides, is considered essentially such an “island.”
Along with city limits, the general plan also addresses the boundary known as the Rural Urban Limit line. This invisible boundary encompasses all the land that is envisioned for urban development through the current general plan of 2020. Boundaries such as these are typically enacted to limit urban sprawl and protect scenic corridors surrounding the city.
There is another invisible boundary that city officials must contend with, known as the Sphere of Influence. Monitored by the Local Agency Formation Commission of Napa County, or LAFCO, the sphere of influence refers to the likely physical boundary and service area of cities.
For the city of Napa, the sphere of influence determines which properties the city will extend services to, such as water and emergency response. The City Council can vote to extend its sphere of influence to properties that are not in the RUL or in city limits, though typically only does so for needed safety upgrades — such as fire protection for development already approved by the county.
The three boundaries, though intertwined, can operate independent of one another. A property can be within city limits but not in the RUL, or within the sphere of influence and not in city limits. With so many options, it’s no surprise that people are confused, officials said.
“There’s clearly a lot of groundwork that needs to be done to educate the community,” said Kahn. “We still have a lot of questions about this.”
What the city will be asking voters to approve in November is a first step in the process to annex the Napa Pipe project into city limits. The measure will not actually be asking voters to annex the property. That decision will ultimately be made by LAFCO, after further applications, studies and public hearings. But LAFCO can’t even address annexing the property until the voters have weighed in on the extension of the RUL.
Napa’s Community Development Director Rick Tooker said that public information fully explaining the vote will be provided in the November voter informational pamphlet. He said that while some people may not fully understand the language of the measure itself, the supplement arguments and additional materials should address any questions that may come up.
“The city has already provided information to the voters through the various staff reports prepared to date,” he said. “All of this information together will help to inform voters of the ballot question so they may reach an independent decision ...”
Tooker added that the city will post all the information related to the vote on its website, with links to all of the documents, in the coming weeks.
If voters reject the RUL expansion request, the property cannot be annexed into city limits by LAFCO. However, that will not necessarily stop the Napa Pipe project from moving forward.
Even if voters reject the RUL expansion, the city has signed an agreement with the county to provide city services to the site — as long as the county finishes a series of requests that city officials wrote into the agreement. If the county adheres to the city’s requirements outlined in the agreement, the city can essentially move Napa Pipe into its sphere of influence, regardless of the November election’s outcome.
For the county, Napa Pipe is seen as a way to meet its state housing requirements. Every eight years, the state sets requirements for the number of multi-family housing units that local towns must build, to keep pace with local job growth.
The Napa Pipe project will satisfy the county’s housing requirements through 2022, a feat that has been difficult to accomplish because of Napa County’s agricultural preserve ordinance that requires most new development to occur in urban areas.
Whether this RUL vote will set a precedent remains to be seen. Typically, the county builds housing within cities to help offset its housing requirements. Doing so is considered preferable to building residences in unincorporated areas, where emergency response times are longer and public services are scarce.
But the amount of county-built housing in urban areas in past years has fallen short of what the state requires. Because the county has an agricultural preserve that makes many areas off limits to development, the county could attempt this in other areas — though no discussion has taken place on the matter.
While Kahn said her group is supporting the RUL expansion and eventually annexing the Napa Pipe property into city limits, she said it does not mean Get a Grip on Growth supports the project itself.
“Our support comes with the (caveat) that we support the project being in the city, but we have issues with the project itself,” she said.