Neighbors, critical of a plan to build eight apartments on this McCorkle Avenue lot, have sued the city of St. Helena to stop the project.

The St. Helena City Council has approved an 8-unit apartment project on McCorkle Avenue, over the objections of neighbors who are concerned about soil contamination, traffic and safety.

After a two-and-a-half-hour hearing on Tuesday, the council approved the project by a 3-2 vote, with Councilmember Paul Dohring casting the deciding vote that allowed the project at 632 McCorkle Ave. to move ahead. Councilmembers Geoff Ellsworth and Mary Koberstein cast dissenting votes.

Applicant Joe McGrath said he’s willing to work with staff to make minor changes to the project’s design, but the altered plans won’t have to come back for another hearing.

The Planning Commission approved the project on Dec. 6, by a 2-1 vote. Attorney and St. Helena resident David Bradshaw of the law firm Jackson Lewis led an effort to appeal the commission’s ruling to the City Council.

His wife Vickie Bradshaw spoke against the project on Tuesday, and after the hearing confirmed that she plans to file a lawsuit challenging the city’s ruling. During the hearing she faced off with City Attorney Tom Brown over several intricate legal points, with Bradshaw claiming the city was failing to review the project’s full impacts as required by the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA).

Councilmembers Geoff Ellsworth and Mary Koberstein wanted McGrath to redesign some aspects of the project in response to criticism over the lack of space for children to play, insufficient natural light and air in the first-floor apartments, the lack of usable outdoor space on the second floor, and the design’s compatibility with historic homes in the area.

“I’m as big a housing advocate as anybody, but I think that as we start to pursue and encourage multi-family housing, we really (need to) consider the standard that we are setting in the design,” said Koberstein, who raised similar points when she voted against the project as a planning commissioner.

Councilmember Paul Dohring said he wasn’t in favor of a full redesign, but he wanted expert opinion on the design’s compatibility with historic homes.

“(Compatibility) is such a loaded word, and that requires experts to tell me what that actually means,” he said.

White said he liked the design and congratulated McGrath on a project that meets the city’s standards and contains the minimum number of units allowed by the zoning. White said McGrath was willing to tweak the design on his own to address some of the concerns, and any further delays imposed by the city would just add to the cost of the project and eventually result in higher rents for tenants.

White said he preferred to “leave it up to Mr. McGrath and the Building Department to come up with their own ideas,” White said.

Mayor Alan Galbraith agreed. “(McGrath) has told us he’s all ears, and I trust that,” he said.

Opponents say McCorkle Avenue is the wrong place for development because it’s a dead-end street with a dangerous combination of many cars and many children who play in the street because there are no parks in the immediate area (the closest one is Meily Park a few blocks away). Neighbors generally supported Our Town St. Helena’s 8-unit Brenkle Court project a few doors down, but they say the McGrath project is too much.

Neighbors said they’re also worried about soil contamination that occurred on the McGrath property under its previous owner, whom they’ve described as a hoarder. The Napa County Department of Environmental Health will oversee and monitor McGrath's remediation of the contaminated soil.

However, City Attorney Tom Brown said a legal technicality prevented the council from basing its decision on those environmental factors. He said the state recently forced St. Helena and many other cities to allow multi-family housing projects in areas zoned high density without requiring a use permit.

“It’s a fight that cities had for a long time but lost,” Brown said.

Since McGrath’s project only required design review, the council’s decision had to be based strictly on the project’s design, not the environmental issues such as traffic and public safety that typically arise when the city is considering a use permit, Brown said.

Vickie Bradshaw strongly disagreed, saying the public’s concerns about parking, traffic, the lack of play space for kids, and soil contamination deserve a full environmental impact, rather than the CEQA “categorical exemption” recommended by city staff.

Neighbors said there were grounds to deny the project on the basis of its design, which Ron Sproat called “butt-ugly.” But their most passionate arguments were based on the safety of children who play in the increasingly busy street.

“We do not want to subject any of the children living on our street to these unsafe conditions,” said Elizabeth Goelz.

However, the council didn’t consider that factor because it didn’t relate to design.

“I think the frustration in this room is palpable,” Koberstein said. But she and other councilmembers accepted Brown’s advice on the limits of their discretion over the project.

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St. Helena Reporter

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