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"It's just where you got to go" : Napa ice rink opens for the winter

The Mott family dreamed of creating a place for families and kids to hang out during the holiday season when they first opened Napa On Ice seven years ago.

Now the valley’s only ice skating rink has become a seasonal staple for people like 14-year-old Bartholomew Webster, a player for the Vacaville Jets hockey team who teaches his friends how to skate at Napa On Ice. He’s been coming since the rink first opened downtown, though it now sits at the Napa Expo.

“It’s not tradition, but it’s just where you got to go,” he said.

The rink first opened Friday and will remain open until January 6. This year’s opening was a bit slower because of the poor air quality from the Camp fire, said Nancy Mott, who operates the rink with husband Peter of the Napa City Council.

The Mott family often took their kids to ice skating rinks elsewhere around the Bay Area, before opening their own location in Napa, Nancy said.

“Kids need something to do,” she said. “They need to go outside and be physical and there’s nothing here for kids.”

The rink remains a family business, though they receive some help setting up the ice skating rink. Nancy doesn’t skate, but she loves being able to open up the rink for free private parties for students with special needs.

Nancy and Peter’s daughter, Madison, was 14 when the rink opened. Madison said she spent a lot of time with friends at the rink every winter — especially before getting her car.

Madison first got looped into the rink business because her parents dragged her there to help sell hot chocolate, she said. But she soon made friends with her coworkers and started enjoying her time there. She still works at the rink.

“I got to be the cool kid with all my friends,” Madison said.

But visiting the winter ice rink isn’t just about spending time with friends for some patrons, like Alexis Salinas, 12. He looks forward to returning with some of his extended family remembers when it gets closer to the holiday season.

“When I fall sometimes, my family laughs,” he said. “And I like when my family laughs.”

Niarra Leigh Nicadao, 7, feels a little bit differently about stumbling on the ice.

“(Skating is) very fun,” she said. “And it’s not fun when I fall.”

Fortunately for Nicadao, her best friend Lavanya Mercan, 6, volunteered to pick her up if she falls.

Home for the holidays: Napa family rebuilds burned house in time for Thanksgiving

A sign in Todd and Tracy Walker’s living room pronounces an end to the year-long, Atlas-fire detour in their lives: “It’s so good to be home.”

Their 1943 Soda Canyon farmhouse was one of several hundred houses incinerated during the October 2017 wildfire. On Nov. 9, they moved into their new home on the same site.

“It’s exciting and it felt good,” Tracy Walker said. “But it was also very eerie with the smoke in the air, the smell of smoke, the ash.”

Even as they moved into their reborn house, the Camp fire was destroying Paradise and other towns in the Sierra Nevada foothills 150 miles to the north. The smoke from 8,000 burning homes blanketed the Napa Valley and Soda Canyon.

Todd Walker said a longtime friend had to evacuate because of the Camp fire, though his house ended up surviving. In addition, the death of 18-year-old Vintage High School graduate Alaina Housley in the Thousand Oaks bar shooting left an emotional pall over Napa Valley.

With all of that weighing on the Walkers’ minds, the Nov. 9 move-in was a mixed experience.

“It was surreal,” Todd Walker said.

Still, as the sign says, “it’s good to be home.” The Walkers moved in just in time to celebrate Thanksgiving and their 30th wedding anniversary in coming days.

The Walkers’ return also apparently broke new ground. County Supervisor Alfredo Pedroza dropped by and told them he believed this to be the first completed, rebuilt Napa County home after the wildfire. Without a doubt, it is among the first.

“This is beautiful,” Pedroza told the Walkers as he looked at their new living room and kitchen.

They didn’t replicate the house they lost, which they had lived in for a year after moving to Soda Canyon from the city of Napa. Rather, they shrunk the house from 2,600 square feet to 1,800 square feet.

The old house had separate rooms for the kitchen and living room, in the style of the 1940s. The new house merges the spaces in the modern style, with a stove on an island. This is a farmhouse, 2018-style, comfortable, yet still simple.

“We wanted the farmhouse look,” Todd Walker said. “Fortunately, you can do that without fancy Corinthian marble imported from Italy.”

Even though the Walkers had occupied their new house only three days earlier, their living area on this recent day was free of boxes or any sign of move-in chaos. They had seemingly finished unpacking.

“We don’t have quite as much stuff,” Todd Walker said with a laugh.

Not after the night of Oct. 8, 2017, a date that will live in local history for all the wrong reasons. That’s when winds topping 60 mph turned Atlas Peak and Soda Canyon into an inferno.

Todd Walker looked out the kitchen window after 10 p.m. to make certain the wind wasn’t damaging trees. He saw the brushy hill that looms across the street topped by smoke that reflected a red glow.

It was time to leave and quickly. Todd and Tracy Walker, Todd Walker’s mother and a niece drove away on Soda Canyon Road after checking on a neighbor.

“I never felt like I was in imminent danger,” Todd Walker said.

The Walkers, like many others, were under-insured and they ended up several hundred thousand dollars out-of-pocket on the rebuild. But Todd Walker said he felt supported by the contractor, the county and others.

“If there’s anything to come out of this story, it’s optimism,” Todd Walker said.

The Walkers salvaged only a few items from the fire. A barbecue looks untouched, though it sustained a slight amount of damage from melting. A white chair swing still hangs from one of the few oaks that wasn’t charred.

Even though the fire destroyed the house, blackened trees and melted a car engine, a donkey and several goats somehow survived in a fenced-in area.

The Walkers could have decided they had enough of a rural canyon with brush that can burn. Todd Walker said he’s certain there will be more fires in the area. Still, he noted the 1943 farm house had survived for decades before finally meeting its demise.

Their new house should have a better chance of surviving if fire comes again. It has such fire-resistant features as a metal roof, fiber cement siding and a cement porch floor pressed to mimic wood.

A 30th wedding anniversary can be occasion for a night on the town. But, as that sign in the living room says, “It’s so good to be home” – home, at long last – so the Walkers may make other plans.

“Stay home and cook in our new kitchen,” Todd Walker said.

Napa strategizes on how to improve 3 congested Highway 29 intersections

Napa County wants to spend $20 million in toll bridge hike money in part to improve three consecutive, congested Highway 29 intersections—Carneros Junction, Soscol Junction and Airport Boulevard.

The county is guaranteed the money for south county Highway 29 projects from last June’s voter-approved Regional Measure 3. Bay Area voters agreed to raise tolls $3 in phases on state-owned toll bridges by 2025 in return for congestion-busting projects.

On Thursday, the Napa Valley Transportation Authority Board of Directors approved a Plan A to spend the $20 million, as well as a Plan B backup. Plan A addresses that traffic-tangling triplet.

“Carneros, Soscol Junction and Airport we view as a linked system,” said Danielle Schmitz of the NVTA. “To maximize congestion relief on that system, we have to have the projects go concurrently or in some sort of close, successive order.”

Carneros Junction is where Highway 29 heads north toward the city of Napa and Highway 12/121 heads west toward Sonoma, near Stanly Ranch and a hilly pasture with black-and-white Dutch-belted cows.

The signalized, three-way intersection could end up with a permanent green light for northbound Highway 29 traffic. The trick is handling Highway 12/121 traffic that would periodically make left turns in front of it. Merge lanes would be added to separate the traffic streams.

Similarly, southbound Highway 29 traffic turning right onto Highway 12/121 could also have a permanent green light, with more merge lanes to separate traffic streams.

Two miles east is Soscol Junction, the signalized highways 29 and 221 intersection. Rush-hour backups can leave drivers on the Butler Bridge looking at the Grape Crusher statue longer than they might wish.

The proposed solution involves building a Highway 29 overpass with no signals. Underneath would be either one or two Highway 221 roundabouts to serve as on and off ramps and to regulate traffic heading to Soscol Ferry Road.

A mile east is the signalized Highway 29/Highway 12/Airport Boulevard intersection. One feature here is big backups as traffic waits in left turn lanes on southbound Highway 29 to enter Highway 12 heading east toward Jameson Canyon and Fairfield.

The tentative idea is to extend the left-turn lanes on Highway 29 back toward Soscol Junction, making them longer. Another possibility is synchronizing the lights at Airport Boulevard and South Kelly Road.

Finally, the NVTA wants to make Highway 29 intersection and other improvements in American Canyon.

But the $20 million in toll hike money won’t cover these projects and it’s not even close. Soscol Junction could cost $40 million, Carneros Junction $3 million and Highway 29/Airport $3 million.

Plan A for the $20 million spends $2.6 million on Soscol Junction, $3 million apiece on the Carneros and Airport intersections and $11.4 million on American Canyon projects. This assumes the NVTA successfully competes for state and other funding sources to cover most of the Soscol Junction costs.

Otherwise, the NVTA would revert to Plan B. Soscol Junction would receive $17.6 million, Carneros Junction $1.4 million and the Airport Boulevard intersection $1 million, with American Canyon projects receiving nothing.

“I would say Soscol is the priority,” NVTA Board member and county Supervisor Alfredo Pedroza said.

The NVTA in coming months will seek enough outside money to move ahead with Plan A. NVTA Executive Director Kate Miller said a travel behavior study underway shows that Highway 29 serves regional traffic passing through the Airport intersection, Soscol Junction and Carneros Junction.

“I think that’s a strong argument to say this is just not isolated to Napa,” Miller said. “This a regional corridor and we really need support in getting it done.”

Napa County can also compete with Bay Area counties for other Regional Measure 3 money for mass transit and trails. Imola Avenue park-and-ride lot improvements, a Vine trail connection from South Kelly Road to Napa Pipe and American Canyon transit improvements on Highway 29 are among the NVTA’s priorities.

Regional Measure 3 provides $100 million for Highway 37 that links Interstate 80 in Solano County with Highway 101 in Marin County. Napa, Solano, Sonoma and Marin counties are seeking solutions for this two-lane, congested road that scientists say faces flooding from sea level rise.

Working with the three other counties, the NVTA proposes that $15 million go toward improving the Highway 37/Fairgrounds Drive area in Vallejo, $27 million toward near-term improvements on the highway and $58 million toward environmental documents and study for long-term improvements.