After two years of planning and debates with city officials, Steves Hardware co-owner Gary Menegon and his wife Roberta are eager to see progress on their application to develop a two-story commercial building at the corner of Main and Adams streets.
They want to move the Main Street Service building to Wappo Park, where it would become a public restroom. But procedural snags and concerns about the building’s historical importance have helped slow the project to a crawl, and it’s still unclear when the project will have its first public hearing.
“This has been an absolute nightmare for the applicants,” Bruce Miroglio, the Menegons’ attorney, told the Planning Commission on Tuesday. The commission had asked for an update on the project.
“Two years is way too long for a city of this size to be spending dealing with a morass of issues that don’t seem to be relevant,” Miroglio said. “It’s been two years, and nothing’s happened other than an awful lot of money being spent.”
The application was submitted in June 2011, completed this July and amended in November. Interim Planning Director Greg Desmond said the city and the applicants have disagreed about the appropriate environmental review process.
The Menegons chose to pursue an initial study and mitigated negative declaration, which is less extensive and much cheaper than a full environmental impact report (EIR). Desmond said that could be problematic. If someone raises concerns about the smog station’s historic nature, it could force the applicants to conduct a full EIR, he said.
The building itself isn’t a historic landmark. But it is a “character-defining element” in a downtown that’s been designated as a historic district, Desmond said.
Bruce Miroglio said that when the application was submitted, “we were told there was an excitement about the project and (the city) would championing the project.”
At the city’s request, the Menegons performed a traffic survey. Then city officials said they didn’t have the money to rebuild the smog station building as a bathroom at Wappo Park, which will be a major undertaking due to the structure’s condition, Miroglio said.
“After paying the interest on the note on the property for all this time and going through every hoop that can be imagined, my clients really don’t want to have to pay for moving and reconstructing this project somewhere else,” he said.
“Only quite recently were we informed that city staff cannot do any of the (environmental review) work, and we had to hire somebody to do that work,” Miroglio added.
The project’s architect, Joel Miroglio, said the Menegons believed hiring a consultant to do an initial study would duplicate work they’ve already done at significant expense. Rather than hiring a consultant, the Menegons offered to apply the equivalent cost of an initial study — about $60,000 — to develop the bathroom at Wappo Park.
“Instead of paying a consultant $60,000, that (money) would go to the community,” Miroglio said, adding that the project already calls for $360,000 in fees to the city.
As the project now stands, it looks like the Menegons will have to pay for the consultant and the reconstruction of the building.
Desmond said hiring a consultant is the city’s standard procedure when projects can’t be ruled exempt from the requirements of the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA). He said the consultant, Jerry Haag, will be able to use the Menegons’ prior studies.
Joel Miroglio said the applicants would be happy to come back to the Planning Commission when the initial study is done so commissioners can talk about the next steps in the environmental review process.
Desmond declined to give a date for when the initial study will be ready, but said he’d report back to the Planning Commission. “I’ll get it on the soonest agenda I can possibly get it on,” Desmond said.
“This is an important project for St. Helena … and it’s important to do it right,” he said.
Joel Miroglio said the Menegons “knew this was a sensitive project from the beginning.”
“That’s why we’ve spent an unspeakable amount of time crafting it,” he said. “We’ve dotted every I and crossed every T, and we’ll continue to do so.”
The proposed new building would be about 2,900 square feet on the ground floor and 2,800 square feet on the second floor.
The site used to have contamination issues that dated back to its days as a gas station, but it’s since been cleaned up and the old underground tanks have been removed.
Vacation rental approved
In other action, the commission approved a short-term rental application for 1702 Tainter St. The project will receive the last of 25 vacation rental permits allowed by the City Council under the ordinance approved in March 2012.
The ordinance calls for a planning commission hearing if an application draws letters of protest from 60 percent of the property owners within 300 feet. The application by Matthew Demchuk was the first project to meet that threshold.
Alan Galbraith, who lives within 300 feet, led the opposition, which cited concerns about noise, parking and security. He said there are already two vacation rentals in the neighborhood, and the 28 protests from neighbors send the message that “at some point enough’s enough.”
Demchuk pointed out that all but a few of the protests were form letters distributed by Galbraith. He said the house is sitting empty while an estate process continues, and using it as a vacation rental will allow the house to generate some income until its future is sorted out.
With Bobbi Monnette voting in dissent, the commission voted 3-1 to approve the application, with the understanding that no on-street parking will be allowed and that the permit will be re-evaluated after one year. Other short-term rentals are effective for two years.