Outcry halts Napa school district's plan for land purchase

2014-05-13T18:15:00Z 2014-06-27T16:45:27Z Outcry halts Napa school district's plan for land purchaseISABELLE SCHMALTZ PETER JENSEN Napa Valley Register

Outcry from the Napa Valley Grapegrowers and wine industry groups has halted plans by the Napa Valley Unified School District to purchase land in the Agricultural Preserve for a future middle school.

The issue — and what set off alarm bells Monday and Tuesday for agricultural and conservation groups throughout Napa Valley — is that this would be the first land taken out of the Ag Preserve since it was created in 1968, said Assessor-Recorder-Clerk John Tuteur.

The 20-acre parcel is located at 1200 Salvador Ave., between Jefferson Street and Big Ranch Road. The district had negotiated with the owner – Hof Enterprises – to purchase the land at the appraised value of $2.7 million.

The school district’s Board of Trustees was scheduled to approve the property purchase at Thursday night’s board meeting, but the item was removed from the board’s agenda Tuesday after the district began receiving a flurry of calls and emails.

The next step for the district is to have discussions with the wine industry and others to weigh different options. It’s possible the seller will move on while the district has these discussions.

Hof Enterprises represents a family from Concord who are not in the local wine industry, said Don Evans, director of school planning and construction. The money to purchase the site would have come from district savings designated for school facilities.

Tuteur said that since the Board of Supervisors created the Ag Preserve, it has only grown in size. It expanded in the 1980s to encompass areas of northeastern Napa, including Big Ranch Road and parts of Salvador Avenue, where the potential school site sits.

The 20 acres once held vineyards but hasn’t been used for agricultural purposes for years, NVUSD Superintendent Patrick Sweeney said. It’s currently an empty grass field.

But the need for a new middle school on agricultural land represents what was considered unthinkable for years in Napa Valley — that the city of Napa would grow so large it would begin to expand into the Ag Preserve.

To wine industry groups like the Napa Valley Grapegrowers, the precedent the school district’s action would set is inconceivable, said Jennifer Putnam, executive director of the Grapegrowers.

“That NVUSD would be the first people to undo what has been in place for almost 50 years — we just find that unacceptable,” Putnam said. “We all understand that 20 appropriate acres is hard to come by. But we’re just not willing to accept this course of action because of the precedent that this sets.”

Supervisor Mark Luce said that while the school district retains the right to do it, he suggested it finds another solution.

“Out of respect for what this community stands for, they should probably look elsewhere,” Luce said.

While Napa County has put in strict land-use controls barring any commercial development that isn’t related to agriculture from occurring in the Ag Preserve, school districts are given great leeway and flexibility when it comes to following those land-use controls.

A 1999 opinion from the California Attorney General’s Office says that the school board may, by a two-thirds vote, exempt the district from these land use controls unless the decision is found to be poorly planned or made in an arbitrary manner.

If the middle school is built, it would be the first middle school constructed for the city of Napa in more than 50 years, Evans said. The “newest” middle school in Napa is Silverado, which was built in 1957.

Evans said a new middle school has been needed for several years because all of the current middle schools are over – or close to reaching – full capacity.

Evans said he has been looking for the last six years for a future middle school site, but few 20-acre parcels come up for sale. And those that do are not always suitable for a school campus. The site off of Salvador Avenue is a flat, open field, which could support off-street parking and is adjacent to the necessary utilities, Evans said.

The location is also ideal, Evans said, because it is in the northeast quadrant of Napa. The district’s three other middle school campuses occupy the northwest, southwest and southeast quadrants.

If this purchase were to go forward, the district would not need another middle school in Napa for, perhaps, several decades.

“The needs of Napa proper would be taken care of for the foreseeable future,” said Wade Roach, assistant superintendent of business services.

This new middle school would be 40 to 45 percent smaller than the district’s current middle schools and would accommodate about 500 students. Redwood Middle School, by comparison, is over capacity with close to 1,040 students. The optimum size for a middle school is 800 to 900 students, according to school board policy.

It’s likely the new middle school would become a magnet school, like Harvest. Magnet schools teach the same standards-driven curriculum as other schools, but do so through a specific academic theme. Magnet schools can draw students from all across the district; students do not have to come from neighborhood elementary schools.

All of the campus buildings would be located on the east side of the property, adjacent to a pond which would be used to irrigate the landscaping, Evans said. The property also has a large well.

The west side of the Salvador property is lined with homes, but they’re set fairly high, and Evans said he could build low enough to not block their views. A landscaping buffer would also be planted to help separate the homes from the school.

District officials are hopeful that the wine industry can present viable options if they’re going to oppose the Salvador purchase.

“We know we’ll have continued middle school growth, but we don’t know of any other 20-acre parcel suitable in the city,” Evans said. “We have tried very hard to look into all possibilities.”

School board President Tom Kensok said he was prepared to discuss the property purchase, but not necessarily to vote on it Thursday night. The board has been discussing it in closed session for some time, although Kensok declined to discuss that, citing confidentiality requirements.

“Now it’s time to start discussing how it fits into the community as a whole,” said Kensok, who is running to unseat District Attorney Gary Lieberstein this year. “We want to work collaboratively with the community to address their concerns before moving forward, keeping in mind that it’s difficult to find a 20-acre parcel. We have overcrowding in our schools and there’s not that much open land around. That’s something that everybody is going to have to take a look at.”

Supervisor Brad Wagenknecht said he hopes the issue will spark a good community dialogue in a fashion that will respect the needs of the Ag Preserve and wine industry, as well as the need NVUSD has to expand its middle school capacity.

Wagenknecht taught middle school students for more than 20 years. He said he understands how middle school students can perform poorly if they’re squeezed into larger schools of more than 1,200 of their peers.

But he also has fought to protect the Ag Preserve in his 12 years as a county supervisor, and acknowledged the “hornet’s nest” the district could kick up if it pursues building a new middle school on agricultural land.

“This is really one of these that is going to take everybody on the same page when we take this leap — if we take this leap,” Wagenknecht said. “They really didn’t know how much they were stepping into a hornet’s nest.”

He said it will require calm discussions between people on both sides of the issue; it can elicit snap judgments and hot tempers from residents, officials and members of the wine industry alike.

“Cooler heads can spend some time talking,” Wagenknecht said. “There’s a lot of education that needs to done on both sides. I’m not going to prejudge how this is going to turn out. I think that it’s important that we talk before we act.”

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