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A long time ago a family wanted to establish a place where they could hold an annual party event to celebrate where they lived and worked. They had a good-sized property they were willing to donate to the cause, but little money for improvements. Fortunately, their Uncle Jerry was willing to help, but he required that the family put the property title in the name of his favorite niece, Nadine.

Over the years this arrangement worked well, with more land donated by the family, or bought by Uncle Jerry. He also provided funds for new buildings and helped with the annual expenses. For several decades the effort thrived, and the annual events were enjoyed by all. Nadine held title, but didn’t really participate much, and didn’t provide financial support. A family council was formed to run the annual events and care for the property, and all was well.

Then Uncle Jerry fell on hard times and could no longer provide financial support to help with the annual events or maintain the property. The property went downhill, and the family council struggled to continue the annual events and make needed repairs and improvements.

After several years of hard times, the family wanted to get back control of the property from Nadine, so they could preserve it and make improvements. Nadine was willing but would only give back title if the family paid a very high price to help with her other unrelated expenses. Her price was based on the property’s worth if it was developed with housing and commercial buildings, not what it was worth as it was actually being used.

The family and Nadine ended up in a stalemate that threatened closure of the property and ending the annual events.

In case you haven’t figured out the players in this tale, they’re as follows:

• The family is the residents of Calistoga

• Uncle Jerry is the State of California

• Nadine is the County of Napa

• The property is the Napa County Fairgrounds

• The family council is the Napa County Fair Association

• The annual event is the Napa County fair and parade

The brief description of events in this tale is real. The land for the fairgrounds was donated by Calistogans and/or paid for by the state. The buildings and other improvements were donated by Calistogans and/or paid for by the state. To my knowledge, the county has never made a meaningful financial contribution to the Fairgrounds. In fact, they have basically ignored their responsibility for the property to the point where a recent Grand Jury report referred to it as an orphan. It is Calistogans who have supported the Fairground from its beginning in 1937.

After more than a year of attempting to reach an arrangement to put the property on a better financial footing (through a Joint Powers Agreement between the city and county) the county decided they would rather sell when the city expressed serious interest in buying it. The county needs money for a new jail and has also been hit by expenses from the recent earthquake and fires. A sale would be a good way to convert an asset they have little interest in to cash.

The city is the logical buyer from the county and is eager to gain control. The city surrounds the Fairground and provides all the infrastructure used. The Fairground is one of the last large open spaces in the area and is important to keep in the public realm, especially as it abuts the Napa River. It should not be developed.

The city recently announced that they and the county are at an impasse on a fair price for the Fairground. Real estate negotiations take place in closed sessions and are not made public. We don’t know the details but understand there’s a large appraisal gap related to the Fairground’s value based on its current use and the value if it were developed to its “highest and best use.” The city believes the price should be based on current use and the county believes the price should be higher based on development.

I would argue that the current use of the Fairground is indeed its “highest and best use” for the citizens of the greater Calistoga community and the rest of Napa County. For the county’s appraiser to envision some other developed use that leads to a higher value makes no sense. The city controls the zoning and land use under the Calistoga General Plan. The Fairground is zoned Public/Quasi Public, just like all the other parks and schoolgrounds in Calistoga. It has the same designation under the General Plan.

The city and county need to further pursue an agreement on price. If necessary, they should use a mediator to help clarify the logic (or illogic) of their positions. Time is running short. The Fair Association announced some time ago they will not operate the Fairground after the end of this year when their contract expires. What will happen to the Fairground if the city doesn’t buy it?

Although I’m a director of the Fair Association, these comments are my own, and not those of the Fair Association board.

Bob Fiddaman