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New state law leaves UpValley Family Centers in a bind

New state law leaves UpValley Family Centers in a bind

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VITA program volunteers

Volunteers for the UpValley Family Centers have long provided free tax preparation services through the VITA program. Some of the volunteers include, Holly Rogers, Christine Hayne, Ray Branstetter, Liane Zane, Norma Godinez, Tim Knutson and Michael Caldarola. In the front row are Norma Ferriz, left and Connie Green. The volunteers posed in early February at the family center's crowded St. Helena office, which is facing the unintended consequences of a new state law.

Recent state legislation aimed at protecting housing is having unintended consequences for the UpValley Family Centers’ St. Helena office.

The nonprofit has outgrown the Spring Street facility it rents from the First Presbyterian Church. The property hasn’t been used for residential purposes for decades, but its Medium Density Residential zoning is preventing the family center from rebuilding the facility for nonprofit use.

Until recently, the land simply could have been rezoned to Public/Quasi-Public, which would be consistent with its current use. However, the Housing Crisis Act of 2019, which took effect Jan. 1, prohibits the “downzoning” of residential land, even when there’s a well-established non-residential use.

The family center has no plans to mount a capital campaign for a new building and remains “100% focused” on helping families affected by the COVID-19 pandemic, said Executive Director Jenny Ocón. But board treasurer Christine Hayne brought the zoning issue to the city’s attention last week as the City Council and Planning Commission launch a comprehensive rewrite of St. Helena’s zoning ordinances.

The UpValley Family Centers serves more than 3,000 low-income residents a year, and its disaster and emergency assistance services are offering critical aid to families who’ve lost income due to the pandemic.

“Ironically, this law is limiting us from serving the very people the law is trying to protect,” Hayne wrote in an email to the city.

The family center has 24 full- and part-time employees who need office space. They are split roughly equally between the center’s St. Helena and Calistoga offices.

Ocón said the center leases space elsewhere in St. Helena because there isn’t enough room for the St. Helena staff at the Spring Street office. Ocón noted that the property hasn’t been used for housing for decades, and the county rents part of the property for a preschool.

“It’s not really set up to be a residence,” she said.

The zoning quandary isn't an immediate concern during the pandemic, when most of the staff is working remotely from home, but it does present a long-term challenge for the nonprofit.

Assistant City Attorney Ethan Walsh called the situation an “unintended consequence” of the new law that’s also cropping up in other communities.

“What (the family center) is experiencing is a really frustrating outgrowth of some of the new legislation,” Walsh said. “They’re not the only ones who are experiencing it.”

There might be some hope short of a legislative fix. The new law does allow residential land to be downzoned if a corresponding piece of land is rezoned to allow for more housing. During a joint council/commission meeting on May 5, Planning Director Maya DeRosa said the city is getting ready to update its General Plan Housing Element, which might offer some opportunities to do that.

Commissioner John Ponte also suggested using a zoning overlay to allow the facility to be rebuilt without changing the underlying residential zoning.

You can reach Jesse Duarte at 967-6803 or jduarte@sthelenastar.com.

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The UpValley Family Centers is committed to serving the community both in times of opportunity and in times of need. During the coronavirus COVID-19 pandemic, even though the St. Helena and Calistoga offices remain closed, there are a variety of services available by phone and online.

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