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Watson Ranch’s developer has held private talks with Caltrans about traffic solutions for American Canyon without involving city officials, upsetting key people at City Hall.

Terry McGrath, head of McGrath Properties and lead player in the Watson Ranch residential and commercial project, informed the City Council last week during a special transportation workshop that his consultants had met multiple times since January with Caltrans to discuss the widening of Highway 29 as well as connecting it to Newell Drive.

The meetings didn’t involve any American Canyon politicians or planners, who were caught off guard by the news of McGrath’s move, particularly City Manager Dana Shigley.

“I’ve told Terry and his team unequivocally that he does not speak for the city before Caltrans,” said a visibly upset Shigley at the March 28 meeting.

“Terry is a player in this project, he is not the project manager,” Shigley said, speaking directly to McGrath as he stood at the public podium. “I’m sorry for being angry, but we’ve had this conversation, Terry, and you obviously didn’t pay attention to it before.”

“If we’re going to be proceeding on this,” said Shigley, referring to plans for adding lanes to Highway 29 and extending Newell Drive northward, “it will be at the council’s direction” and “not your interest in whatever self serves your department or project.”

“I just want to be real clear this is the city’s project,” she added, “and you don’t get to represent the city to Caltrans or any other stakeholder.”

McGrath didn’t take kindly to the public scolding, telling Shigley: “In no way shape or form am I pretending to represent the city here. I do have a right to go to Caltrans.”

The developer said he had spent $200,000 to retain Point C Partners — a transportation consulting firm that includes former high ranking Caltrans officials — to gain access to Caltrans leadership and gauge their willingness to support projects in American Canyon.

He also pointed out that he’s spent a decade, and about $10 million so far trying to get Watson Ranch off the ground. The project would be the largest in American Canyon’s and possibly Napa County’s history. It would build 1,250 residential units and a commercial Town Center and add about 5,000 new residents to the city.

“Everyone is going to have a little skin in this game, and a little pain in this game,” said McGrath, “so I absolutely do not agree with your position on this that I cannot go to Caltrans.”

McGrath said he decided to hire Point C Partners following a disappointing council meeting on Jan. 24, during which council members — at the direction of Shigley — rejected three requests from McGrath, including the addition of more residential units to Watson Ranch.

He said last week that after the Jan. 24 meeting, “My takeaway was as a private developer I have to do everything within my power” to make progress on such things as the Newell extension “with all the stakeholders.”

Shigley countered that the meetings have only involved his representatives and Caltrans. “You just said we all need to be at the table,” said Shigley, “but you’ve made it clear you’ve been there ahead of us.”

Mayor Leon Garcia backed Shigley’s complaints, saying: “What Miss Shigley is saying is, we need to be a part of that conversation, and we weren’t.”

Other council members saw McGrath’s move with Point C Partners as a “positive,” according to Councilmember Mariam Aboudamous.

“It should not be perceived as a negative,” she said. “Basically, he’s paying for access to Caltrans.”

Councilmember Mark Joseph also didn’t have a problem with McGrath going to Caltrans. “I don’t know if I would freak out” over it, said Joseph. “Terry’s hasn’t done a disservice to us.”

Garcia responded to Joseph, insisting Shigley was “not freaking out.”

The mayor echoed remarks made by Public Works Director Jason Holley, who said McGrath’s talks with Caltrans might send conflicting signals to the state agency.

“The danger that we’re fearful of,” said Holley, “is what is being portrayed, perhaps inadvertently, or is being received [by Caltrans] as a mixed message of importance.”

Holley was referring to McGrath’s presentation earlier in the meeting that said the city should focus more on extending Newell Drive — making it a four-lane “urban arterial” roadway with speed limits of 55 mph — instead of getting funds to widen Highway 29 from four to six lanes.

“When someone says focus on this, and they’re not representing the city, it can be received on the other end [at Caltrans] as, ‘Gee, maybe American Canyon has changed its mind, American Canyon does want to bypass the highway, American Canyon doesn’t want to focus on the highway,’” said Holley.

McGrath insisted his communications with Caltrans didn’t diminish the idea of expanding the highway, but did talk up the advantage of expanding Newell Drive to help relieve congestion.

Whatever solution is put forward, said Councilmember Kenneth Leary, “If we’re going to do this right, we have to work together” and “we got to get on the same page.”

“Of course it has to be driven by the city,” Leary said. “It can’t be driven by the developer.”

McGrath offered to have Point C Partners set up a large meeting of stakeholders, including officials from American Canyon, Napa County and the Napa Valley Transportation Authority, to sit down with Caltrans.

Holley advised that it would be better to have local talks between American Canyon, the county and NVTA before going into a room with Caltrans decision-makers.

Leary agreed, saying it was important to “get our laundry together” first, so as to “not air our dirty laundry” in a room with state transportation leaders.