Home construction in Napa

A 2015 building project on Big Ranch Road added 17 homes to a neighborhood in north Napa. The City Council has passed rule changes meant to allow developers to build as many as 10 residences in a multifamily project solely with city staff’s approval, but the Planning Commission seeks to lower that cap to four units.

J.L. Sousa, Register file photo

A recent policy shift is meant to lower roadblocks to multifamily housing in Napa, but the city’s land-use authority seeks changes it hopes will preserve neighbors’ ability to weigh in.

The Planning Commission has recommended softening a rule change, supported by the City Council in May, that would allow those building up to 10 dwellings in one development to gain a building permit solely with staff members’ approval, rather than votes by planners or council members.

Instead, the commission last week supported setting the bar with no vote needed at four units, a step that would preserve the five-person agency’s authority over most housing developments designed for five to 30 households. Projects with 31 or more units – except for those reserved for families earning less than Napa’s median income – would continue to require approval from both the commission and the City Council.

Currently, any home construction larger than a duplex requires a Planning Commission vote, and the council also must sign off on developments with at least 11 units. Developers have pointed to such voting requirements as barriers that can add months to the road from a city application to groundbreaking.

The Napa council’s move to streamline permitting was meant to shorten the path to expanding a constricted, costly housing supply and allow more local workers to live closer to their jobs. But the task of planners to carry out that goal rubbed against their desire to preserve Napans’ voice in what new homes go up nearby – and a sentiment that adding as few as five or 10 homes still can reshape a neighborhood.

“I don’t want the public hearing to be held on Nextdoor: ‘Who noticed it? Who got to go to the hearing?’” said Commissioner Paul Kelley, a local architect. “There’s enough doubt about all the development coming in that (people think) is being railroaded through, that something that is nine or 10 units is sizable enough that the neighbors have a right to weigh in on it.”

Commissioner Gordon Huether also was wary of going too far in pulling back layers of review, calling on the city not to compromise too much on design standards.

“They sharpen their pencils before coming to Napa now,” he said. “They’ve heard from developers, they’ve heard from staff, that we’re not messing around – we want really good architecture. When you take the Planning Commission out of that, that takes some of the pressure off.”

Community Development Director Rick Tooker sought to reassure planners that design standards will be preserved, even if fewer projects get a second or third level of review.

“We also know we’re under a spotlight by the commission when things don’t go well. We’re constantly under a spotlight by the community,” he said. “So it goes back to the fundamental planning issue – the single most important thing now is affordable housing.

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“The risk in any issue with multiple priorities is, will design suffer? And we hear you loudly and clearly that it won’t suffer by virtue of a staff-level review.”

In any case, the housing additions that would cut deepest into Napa’s shortage will be larger projects that already face planners’ scrutiny because of their size, predicted Commissioner Michael Murray.

“I don’t remember any multifamily projects with (only) 10 units coming to us,” he said. “… If we’re just looking at the planning side, the intent of the City Council, as I see it, is taking the (developments with) 11 to 30 units and getting those on a faster track.”

The Napa council also voted in May in favor of allowing affordable-housing developments to move ahead simply with city staff’s consent. Planners largely affirmed that move, although they called for a five-unit minimum for the exemption.

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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.