In a rare joint meeting on Tuesday, the St. Helena City Council and Planning Commission settled a few lingering issues involving the long-delayed General Plan update, as consultants restart work on the plan’s environmental impact report.
The protection of vineyard land, the management of tourism, the costs and benefits of major commercial projects, and the potential future annexation of land outside the city limits were all on the docket.
City staff and consultants asked the council and commission to give direction on those and other issues that weren’t fully resolved in 2016, when the Planning Commission conducted an in-depth review of the plan. Due to staff turnover, their suggested edits were never forwarded to the City Council.
The first task force assigned to plot an update to the 1993 General Plan was appointed in June 2005. A subsequent committee, appointed in 2007, produced a draft that made it to the council in 2010, but final adoption was delayed at the last minute and has been elusive ever since.
As a sign of how long the process has taken, consultants recommended changing the plan’s horizon date from 2035 to 2040. General plans typically have a range of about 20 years.
The council and commission readily agreed to that recommendation and other non-controversial edits, like a prohibition on hotels in residential areas and a comprehensive zoning review that will take place immediately after the plan is adopted.
However, other issues generated more debate.
At the request of the affordable housing advocacy group Our Town St. Helena, the council and commission agreed to strike a clause inserted during Mayor Ann Nevero’s tenure to “strictly limit development” on vineyard land, even if the property is zoned for housing.
Mayor Alan Galbraith said the proposed clause conflicted with the city’s list of housing opportunity sites, which contains some vineyards that are zoned for housing. The clause was deleted, making it clear that the protection only applies to vineyards that are already designated as agricultural land.
A related policy that discourages the development of existing farmland was also rephrased to exclude properties that are identified as housing opportunity sites.
The “Tourism Management Element” of the 1993 plan didn’t carry over into the proposed update. However, a single clause proposed a few years ago would have called for the city to “manage growth and tourism” – a shift from the original draft that read “manage growth.”
The council and commission debated whether the city is able to manage tourism directly, and agreed that the city is better equipped to manage the impact of tourism, not tourism itself.
As suggested by Commissioner Lester Hardy, the goal was amended to read “manage growth, tourist-oriented uses, and the impacts of tourism.”
The council and commission also wrestled with a recommendation by the advocacy group Citizens Voice that the plan require “a detailed cost-benefit analysis of tourism development.”
Councilmember Mary Koberstein said that analysis could explore a project’s financial impact on the city, effects on traffic at intersections, demand for employee housing, and other factors that aren’t fully explored during the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) review process.
However, councilmembers and commissioners said there needs to be more discussion about what exactly the analysis would entail and which projects would be subjected to it. Councilmember Paul Dohring said the idea is still “too amorphous,” so the General Plan should only call for further study.
City staff will report back after researching how other jurisdictions conduct such analyses.
Expanded Planning Areas
The consultants working on the plan’s new environmental impact report will study three new “Planning Areas” outside the city limits: the spray fields adjacent to the wastewater treatment plant, the Highway 29 corridor south of town to Zinfandel Lane, and Meadowood and the properties around it.
Studying those areas could be a precursor to expanding the city’s sphere of influence, which in turn could be a precursor to future annexation.
“This is basically baby steps to look at what’s going on with the city limits and city boundaries, to allow something to occur, should it need to, many years down the road,” Planning Director Noah Housh said.
City officials have wanted to bring the spray fields under city control for many years, but the county rebuffed an annexation attempt in the 2000s.
South St. Helena and Meadowood are being studied partly because the city provides water to homes and businesses in those areas. Many of those water customers use aging septic systems, and might eventually want to connect to city sewer over the long term.
However, any annexation could face resistance from the county, which stands to lose significant tax revenue if those areas are brought into the city limits.
When given a chance to speak at the end of the hearing, a few members of the public said they were frustrated that they hadn’t gotten more advance notice of Tuesday’s meeting and that they hadn’t been allowed to talk sooner, before the council and commission reached consensus on various issues.
Vickie Bradshaw said the process “adds to diminishing the public trust” in the city. Other members of the public had emailed the city asking for Tuesday’s discussion to be postponed.
Housh said there will be plenty of chances for the public to comment as the General Plan’s EIR moves forward. There will be a scoping meeting in late March or early April, study sessions by the Planning Commission and City Council, a 45-day public comment period once the draft EIR is released, and public hearings on the final EIR in front of the Planning Commission and City Council.