AMERICAN CANYON — Four years after it was formally proposed to the city, the Watson Ranch project is expected to go before the American Canyon Planning Commission and City Council in the fall for separate approvals.
The ambitious development would create more than 1,250 housing units and a large commercial, retail and entertainment center known as the Napa Valley Ruins and Gardens, which would incorporate some of the iconic structures from the old cement factory on the east side of town.
Covering more than 300 acres, Watson Ranch would also create 53 acres of parks, trails and open space, and build a new elementary school for 600 students living in the new neighborhood.
The Planning Commission is scheduled to take up Watson Ranch in September, and the City Council in October.
Watson Ranch was on track for city approval two years ago when officials released a draft environmental impact report for the project. The report generated a substantial volume of comments in summer 2016 from agencies, organizations and individuals, and strained the resources of city staff to respond in a timely manner.
Further delays ensued when city officials and the developer, McGrath Properties, struggled to agree on several issues related to the development, prompting them to hire a mediator to hash out a compromise. The two sides came to an agreement on a “Term Sheet and Project Schedule Agreement” approved by the City Council in January.
Because two years lapsed from the draft environmental report’s release, and because minor revisions were made to the project’s Specific Plan, the city recirculated the report in July for public review and comment. The comment period ended Aug. 16.
City Manager Jason Holley said on Monday the city this time received four comment letters on the recirculated environmental report draft, compared to 14 letters on the original draft environmental report in 2016. That report can be found on the city’s website, www.cityofamericancanyon.org.
Just prior to the comment period’s conclusion, the Planning Commission held a hearing on Aug. 13 for interested parties to address their concerns about the EIR.
Only two people — a resident and a planning commissioner — offered comments, and both raised issues with Watson Ranch’s impact on traffic.
Cheryl Bernard Shaw, who lives in Vintage Ranch near where the project would be built, said she opposed Watson Ranch because “the traffic concerns have not been addressed fully” by the mitigation efforts in the revised environmental report.
She noted that the report found key local roads, such as Newell Drive and American Canyon Road, would have “significant impacts” from traffic generated by the project. She asked if other reduction efforts would be proposed for these roads, a question that went unanswered.
Commissioner Eric Altman also brought up traffic during his comments.
First, he questioned why the environmental report assumed the project would produce households with an average of 3.5 residents. With 1,253 housing units planned, Watson Ranch could add nearly 4,400 more residents to American Canyon, whose current population is about 21,000.
“To my logical understanding,” Altman said, “that seems to be a fairly low and likely insufficient number that then impacts the school size” and other things.
The environmental report says between Watson Ranch and other future developments planned for the city, American Canyon’s population could eventually eclipse 32,000, according to the city’s General Plan. American Canyon has been the fastest growing city in Napa County so far this century, going from a population of 9,774 in 2000 to 20,990 by 2017 — an increase of 115 percent, per the environmental report.
Altman also questioned the traffic study performed for the environmental report, noting that the report said the peak afternoon commute was 4-6 p.m.
“My personal experience is if you’re coming south from Napa after about 2:30 in the afternoon, you are running into traffic on Highway 29,” said Altman. If the traffic counts weren’t done until 4 p.m., he said, “They may not necessarily reflect just how bad the traffic can be.”
The environmental report states Watson Ranch “would contribute to unacceptable traffic operations under Existing Plus Project conditions, even with implementation of identified mitigation measures. Impacts would be significant and unavoidable.”
In another section, the report says the project could generate 18,001 net daily vehicle trips, with 1,079 trips occurring during the morning peak period (7-9 a.m.), and 1,488 during the afternoon peak period.
To accommodate the increased traffic, the city plans to extend Rio Del Mar to the east, plus Devlin Road to the south so it connects with Green Island Road.
It also would like to extend Newell Drive from the northern boundary of Watson Ranch to Highway 29 so motorists can bypass the highway through American Canyon. But securing funding for what would be a multi-million dollar transportation project has been a challenge for city officials.
The recirculated environmental report took into account several “minor revisions” to the Watson Ranch Specific Plan, according to city staff.
The changes included a new buildout schedule for the project, which would undergo construction in phases from 2019 to 2027. Previously, the schedule ran from 2018 to 2025.
Also, the developer plans to build 31 fewer high-density residential units, such as apartments, and instead construct 31 more medium-density residential units, compared to the project description provided in the 2016 draft environmental impact report.
Examples of medium-density housing include small-lot single family homes, duets, duplexes, townhomes and condominiums, according to Community Development Director Brent Cooper.