Home construction in Napa

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

J.L. Sousa, Register file photo

In a push to lower the barriers to denser housing construction in Napa, the City Council has chosen to move further ahead than planners have suggested.

Affirming a policy change it announced this spring, the council last week unanimously passed an ordinance allowing multifamily projects of up to 10 homes to move ahead solely with the say-so of planning staff – with no votes necessary from itself or the Planning Commission. Currently, the city’s land-use authority must sign off on any home construction larger than a duplex.

The ordinance – which would become law after a second favorable council vote and a 30-day waiting period – also will require only the commission’s approval for projects with 11 to 30 dwellings, a range that currently requires a council vote. Larger developments will continue requiring the support of both bodies.

Council members stuck by the original proposals they supported in May to speed up the permitting of apartment and condominium projects, which city leaders believe are most likely to provide the lower-cost workforce housing that has become increasingly scarce and costly in Napa.

However, planners last month tried to balance the need to fast-track cheaper housing with their desire to preserve neighbors’ say in the form that new homes take. The commission sent back a scaled-down program that would allow it to continue reviewing developments with as few as five homes.

“I don’t want the public hearing to be held on Nextdoor: ‘Who noticed it? Who got to go to the hearing?’” Commissioner Paul Kelley, a local architect, said at the time.

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But despite planners’ concerns about holding small-but-dense housing sites to the city’s design standards, council members declared Napa’s Planning Department up to that task.

“We’re trying to remove barriers; we’re trying to reduce costs, which are barriers, as we’re trying to build more housing,” said Councilman Peter Mott. “I thought this was a great step by the council to say, ‘We don’t need to look at every single one of these small things.’ I’m still supportive of the original effort.

“Design review is important to me, but I also believe we have extremely talented and smart staff members who are trained to do this stuff, and they are more than capable of handling these projects.”

Those disputing city approvals of housing construction will have the same rights of appeal as currently, said senior planner Michael Walker. A staff-approved project can be appealed to the Planning Commission, and a development approved by planners can be disputed and sent to the City Council for its review.

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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.