AMERICAN CANYON — The city of American Canyon and the developer of Watson Ranch have begun meeting with the help of a mediator to resolve issues that have brought the ambitious project to a standstill.
The two sides met last Thursday for the first time with attorney Michael Durkee, according to Community Development Director Brent Cooper.
Cooper said the mediation was attended by City Manager Dana Shigley and Terrence McGrath of McGrath Properties, which is seeking to build 1,253 residential units plus a large commercial center and luxury hotel at or near the old cement factory.
Neither Shigley nor McGrath responded to queries seeking a comment on how the meeting went. Durkee also did not respond to calls and emails. His website says he specializes in land use and local government, and has represented developers as well as cities.
Durkee was brought in with the consent of both parties, Cooper said, after months of negotiations failed to produce agreements on key matters surrounding Watson Ranch.
“There really hasn’t been a lot of progress,” said Cooper.
“For whatever the reason, we weren’t able to bridge the gap,” he said, holding his hands far apart to demonstrate “the gulf” between the two sides.
Cooper said at one point in recent months that McGrath produced a “term sheet” that discussed the developer’s priorities. The city reviewed it, and made several changes before sending it back to McGrath.
“They weren’t all that happy” with the city’s response, said Cooper. “It didn’t really advance the effort” to find common ground.
The need for a mediator followed a public meeting in January that saw McGrath make several requests of the City Council, including building more homes than planned. McGrath left that meeting empty-handed.
A council workshop in April on transportation issues saw Shigley and McGrath argue over the developer’s efforts to hire a private consultant to communicate with Caltrans officials regarding possible roadway expansions. The city manager accused the developer of trying to represent American Canyon in private talks with Caltrans, an accusation McGrath denied.
Cooper said the impasse between the two sides has caused delays for the Watson Ranch environmental impact report, which was publicly released in July 2016. The environmental impact report generated a large volume of comments from various groups and citizens — comments that the city must review and publicly answer.
But officials stopped working on the comments once the project got bogged down amid numerous concerns, such as how to pay for infrastructure that will be needed to accommodate the thousands of new residents generated by Watson Ranch.
Shigley declined to answer questions regarding the mediator, and instead forwarded them to City Attorney William Ross.
Ross did not provide answers for how much the city is spending on the mediation, or when the City Council approved it.
Instead, Ross’ response indicated the City Council agreed privately to hire a mediator during a closed session, and that there are legal limitations on what can be said about it.
“The Brown Act provides that local government decision-makers,” including the City Council, “are entitled to, and do meet, in Closed Session to consider confidentially matters authorized by the Brown Act,” Ross wrote in an email.
“Matters considered in Closed Session may or may not be subject to being reported upon,” he wrote.
Councilmember Mark Joseph acknowledged that the decision to hire a mediator was made in closed session. He declined to say more about it.
“It’s all under the category of potential litigation,” said Joseph, “so I’m going to be ambiguous even though I know the answer. I’m not so sure I should go into too many details.”
Joseph, a self-described “fan” of Watson Ranch, said transportation is the most significant concern still to be resolved between the city and the developer.
“Traffic is the last big headache” for Watson Ranch, said Joseph.
Specifically, he said there are disagreements between the two sides over how to fund the extension of Newell Drive so it connects with Highway 29, creating a direct way for traffic to reach the highway from the new subdivisions.
Watson Ranch, if fully built out, would add about 5,000 new residents to American Canyon, according to the draft environmental impact report, and generate thousands of new motorists for the city’s already clogged roadways, including the highway, during rush hour.
“Newell extension has to be part of the project in some fashion,” said Joseph, “whether they [the developer] have to pay all of it, or just their fair share or something else.”
“I don’t believe we can say we’re going to approve this project and cross our fingers that the road gets built,” he added, before offering a warning that there is a limit to his support for the project.
“We almost have to say there’s a point at which the road is built, or we stop” with approving Watson Ranch, Joseph said.