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The controversial Hunter project faces yet another delay, almost seven years after developer Dennis Hunter applied to build 87 homes past the eastern end of Adams Street.

Urban Planning Partners, the consultant the city hired in 2011 to write the project’s environmental impact report (EIR) at the applicants’ expense, told the city in May that it will no longer work on the long-awaited final report.

The news has left the city scrambling to find a new consultant that’s willing to finish the work that Urban Planning Partners started or, more likely, compile an entirely new EIR. Planning Director Noah Housh said the city has reached out to three reputable firms and is waiting to hear back. He didn’t estimate how long the project might be delayed.

At Tuesday’s City Council meeting, the project’s opponents laid the blame for the latest delay at the feet of the applicants, not the city or the consultant. They asked the council to order a new EIR, not a modified one, and to consider rejecting the project on the grounds that the developer isn’t cooperating.

Mayor Alan Galbraith said the council will discuss how to proceed in August, once incoming City Manager Mark Prestwich has started working.

“The likelihood is that I would want to see a clean EIR,” Galbraith said.

“Also I’d like to hear from the city attorney as to whether at this point the city has the ability simply to terminate the process without any real risk of legal liability, given the delay that seems very much the responsibility of the developer,” Galbraith said.

John Milliken noted that the applicant asked for a September 2013 public hearing on a draft EIR to be postponed – a delay that turned into years.

“There’s been this pattern of delay by the applicant,” Milliken said. “They just don’t seem to be interested in finishing this thing, and it just goes on and on and on.”

The current draft EIR is now five years old and would need to be overhauled anyway, said Ann Nevero, who urged the council to order a new report.

“The developer has stalled and stalled,” she said. “Now the EIR consultants … are quitting and there’s no longer a single member of the city staff who was involved in the original project still here.”

After reviewing the latest draft of the EIR last October, the city asked the applicant to provide a revised map, more data about water use, and more details about the project’s affordable housing units. The city also asked the developers for another $25,000 for the consultant to analyze the additional information.

According to Housh, the applicants provided some of the information but didn’t pledge to pay the $25,000 until May. When the city authorized Urban Planning Partners to resume their work, Principal Lynette Dias told the city her firm wouldn’t be able to do so due to the long delay.

During that time, the firm had taken on a major contract with the city of Fremont, and some of the consultants who had worked on the Hunter report had left for other jobs, Dias told the city in an email on June 29.

“The Hunter project has stopped and started many times as a result of delay in receiving information, changes in direction regarding approach and the project, and City staff changes,” Dias wrote. “Our work initiated on the project in 2012 and UPP has worked hard to accommodate the delays and changes as efficiently as possible, but given we had not received authorization to proceed on the October 2016 contract modification within a reasonable period of time, we were no longer planning for the project in our staffing projections.”

Housh said starting a new EIR is a more likely option than asking a new consultant to finish what Urban Planning Partners started. One of the reasons is that Urban Planning Partners’ original contract said the firm wouldn’t be legally liable for the EIR if someone else were to modify it. A new consultant hired to modify the EIR would probably also demand to be released from legal liability, which would be unacceptable to the city.

Nobody spoke on behalf of the Hunter project at Tuesday’s hearing. After the Star went to press on Wednesday, developer Ben vanZutphen denied that his team was responsible for the delays.

"It took the city quite a while to get back to us and let us know exactly what the additional $25,000 was for," he said, adding that the applicants already paid a "horrendous amount of money to the consultants."

"I didn't give it to them until I had a detailed explanation of why they needed it," he said. "Then I had to run it by my team to see if that was really appropriate."

"We have been diligently trying to bring forth this project with the city and have met nothing but -- I would go so far as to say resistance on several levels," vanZutphen said.

Neighbors have criticized the project’s size, its impact on traffic and water, and the risk of flooding on the project site, which is behind the new levee.


St. Helena Reporter

Jesse has been a reporter for the St. Helena Star since 2006.