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City of St. Helena

The St. Helena City Council adopted an updated General Plan on Tuesday, ending years of delays, rewriting and tinkering.

The council voted 3-1 to approve the plan, with Mayor Geoff Ellsworth voting no and Councilmember David Knudsen absent.

Ellsworth said he supported adopting the plan, but he wanted to wait until the council’s June 11 meeting to give the public more time to digest the plan and its environmental impact report – which total 2,300 pages – and so that the council could take a 5-0 vote with Knudsen in attendance.

“In striving to be a person of my word and having spoken of my commitment the community be afforded until June 11 for clarification of some final issues, I felt a yes vote on May 14 would have been inconsistent,” Ellsworth later said in a statement.

“That said, I am in support of our new General Plan and think the City and community should be pleased and proud that after many years of delay we finally have a new General Plan and can move forward addressing other important issues. Much work and patience went into this and it is a great step forward.”

At first, Councilmember Mary Koberstein was also in favor of waiting until June 11, when the council plans to talk about how to perfect the document through the General Plan Amendment process. But after Councilmembers Anna Chouteau and Paul Dohring pushed to adopt the plan on Tuesday, Koberstein said she had a “change of heart."

Dohring said he was concerned that if the council waited until June 11, the discussion of necessary changes might prevent the plan from being adopted at all.

“I can see that derailing us,” Dohring said, adding that the update is “a strong document” even though it needs some adjustments and clarifications.

‘Into the modern era’

When the city recruited a committee to guide the General Plan update in December 2006, a flyer estimated that the process “may take 2-3 years.”

An earlier version of the plan was on the verge of adoption in 2010, but the council agreed to hold off to resolve some details involving water. A delay that was expected to be a matter of months stretched into years as the makeup of the council changed, city staff came and went, and old controversies over growth, street extensions and flood risks resurfaced.

The final version of the plan, released in October, calls for Oak Avenue to be extended between Mitchell Drive and Grayson Avenue, which would give drivers an alternative to Main Street. Main Street congestion is still expected to get worse, but not as worse as it would get without the Oak extension.

Councilmembers followed the Planning Commission’s recommendation to approve the Oak extension. Organizers of the Napa Valley Vine Trail have talked about using Oak to extend the trail through St. Helena, but councilmembers said that will be a separate discussion.

The plan will trigger a comprehensive rewrite of St. Helena’s 1990s-era zoning code. Planning Director Noah Housh said it also protects agricultural land and cultural and biological resources, calls for pedestrian and bike improvements, introduces a mixed-use zoning designation that would allow housing downtown, and eliminates outdated policies like the cap on restaurant seats.

Compared with the “tourism management” policies of the 1993 General Plan, the update takes a more nuanced approach to the question of local-serving versus tourist-serving businesses, encouraging a diverse set of business types.

“It essentially brings St. Helena’s policy-making into the modern era,” Housh said.

Only two comments

Only two members of the public commented on the plan before the council’s vote.

Ann Nevero questioned whether the plan adequately acknowledges the risk of flooding behind the new levee. Consultants said the FEMA map contained in the plan complies with the state’s requirements for General Plans. They added that the update doesn’t create any additional flood risk on top of what was already contemplated in the 1993 plan.

The other comment came from Napa County Planning Director David Morrison, who strongly objected to policies calling for the city to “study the benefits of annexing lands adjacent to the City” where the city provides water and other services.

“The city’s support for the update as presently drafted will lead to continued disagreement and potential conflict,” Morrison said. “Such a dispute would be a disservice to both of our agencies, no matter which party prevails.”

The plan’s EIR includes three “study areas” on county land: the Meadowood and Madrone Knoll area east of Silverado Trail, commercial and residential areas along Highway 29 down to Zinfandel Lane, and the spray fields adjacent to the city’s wastewater treatment plant.

Housh said the plan merely calls for studying the benefits of annexation. If annexation is deemed appropriate, the plan calls for “favorable tax-sharing agreements” to support city services and infrastructure in those areas.

Dohring said he respected the county’s “robust defense of county lands and county money, frankly,” but found the county’s objections “difficult to swallow.”

“It seems very rich and very ironic that the county would allow development in the beginning … and then ask the city to take a stand that says no further development and no annexation,” Dohring said.

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