The controversy over whether a former mobile home park outside the St. Helena city limits should have access to city water has now landed in court.
Hall Vineland LLC and Hall Vista LLC sued the city of St. Helena and Public Works Director Erica Ahmann Smithies in Napa Superior Court on Jan. 15. The lawsuit seeks at least $7.1 million in damages and a court order compelling the city to issue a “will-serve” letter and supply water to the property, which is being renovated.
The city has contended that it has no obligation to provide water for what it considers a new use. However, the lawsuit claims the owners have continued to pay city water bills for the property, and thus the city must continue to provide water as the project moves ahead.
“Lacking jurisdiction over the use of the Park because it is located outside city limits, the City is trying to accomplish through denial of water service that which it otherwise is unable to prevent,” the lawsuit states.
It accuses the city of “unlawfully threatening to deprive Petitioners of water, and failing to commit to provide proper and adequate water service, as is required by law.”
Vintner Kathryn Hall said she filed the suit “with great reluctance” after trying to resolve the matter with the city and spending millions of dollars on the renovations.
The City Council discussed the litigation in closed session last Thursday. Mayor Geoff Ellsworth, City Manager Mark Prestwich and City Attorney Tom Brown declined to comment on pending litigation.
“That being said I do think it’s important for our community to remain informed about local government activity and we will endeavor to provide information as soon as we can do so,” Ellsworth said.
The Vineland Vista Mobile Home Park dates back to 1961. Tenants were told to vacate the property in 2009 so that it could be renovated. Since then the owners have been planning to improve the park. They also propose to donate a 2-acre parcel behind Dean & DeLuca for farmworker housing.
Last June, St. Helena city councilmembers contended that the Halls intended to replace Vineland Vista with what amounted to a hotel, based on tentative plans submitted to the county that used the word “hotel” and showed amenities like pools and a two-story clubhouse containing concierge space, a kitchen, dining room and fitness room.
Last week, Hall said the property will remain a mobile home park, but short-term overnight stays are still a possibility.
“It’s not nailed down for sure, but (overnight stays) are absolutely in the mix,” Hall said. “No matter whether people can stay there on a nightly basis, which is the Calistoga Ranch model, it is still a mobile home park.”
The council adopted a resolution last June expressing “significant concerns” about the project’s potential effects on traffic, water use, aesthetics, adjacent agricultural uses, and other impacts associated with potential septic use.
“The whole thing looks semi-fraudulent,” then-Mayor Alan Galbraith said during a June council meeting. “Maybe strike the word semi.”
According to the lawsuit, a November 2016 water study concluded that the baseline water demand for the improvements to the Park would comply with the City’s water neutrality policy by incorporating low-flow water fixtures. Based on that study, the city issued a “will-serve” letter agreeing to provide water for the project.
Last September, after the council had raised concerns about the project, the city rescinded the will-serve letter. That previous letter had been “based on incorrect assumptions you provided regarding existing water usage,” the city’s Public Works Department claimed in a Sept. 5 letter.
The November 2016 water study had assumed that existing water use was continuing under the new plans. However, the city claimed the property’s water use was “minimal” after the residents vacated Vineland Vista in 2010 “and ceased all together in April 2016.”
Given the new water use baseline of essentially zero, the project would not be water-neutral, city councilmembers said last year.
The Public Works letter left open the possibility that the city might issue a new will-serve letter if the applicants submit accurate data regarding baseline water use, demonstrate how the project would comply with the city’s water-neutrality policy, and obtain a water use agreement from the city.
Hall said the property’s water use “went way down” during renovation and ceased entirely for three months due to a faulty backflow valve that was subsequently replaced. However, the park has remained in operation, and except for those three months the Halls have been receiving and paying water bills for the property, she said.
As the renovations continue, “I anticipate that (water usage) will be back to the standard level it was before when the park was occupied by tenants,” Hall said.
She estimated that the last residents moved out in 2014, but she denied that the park has abandoned its water rights.
“There are no people living there now, but that doesn’t mean that the park is not a mobile home park in operation,” she said. “It is in operation, in the stage of renovation. Unfortunately the renovation has taken longer than I’d hoped.”
The Star has filed Public Records Act requests seeking the property’s water bills over the last two years, correspondence between the city and the Halls, and correspondence between the city and the county regarding the project.
The water bills are considered confidential, but Hall voluntarily provided the Star with bills from January 2017 through January 2019.
The bills, posted on the Star’s website, show there was no water use on the property from January 2017 until the October 2018 bill, when there was a charge for 14 water units. One water unit is equivalent to 748.05 gallons.
According to the bills, the property was charged for 27 units in November 2018, 28 units in December 2018, and 29 units in January 2019.
The bills show that Hall Vineland LLC was still paying monthly base charges of between $94.33 and $165.65 throughout 2017 and 2018, except for a gap between June 2018 and October 2018. There were no base charges in June and no bills at all in July, August or September, consistent with the three-month gap that Hall described.