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American Canyon cement factory ruins

The old cement factory ruins will be converted into a new town center as part of the Watson Ranch development, which the American Canyon City Council approved in October 2018. 

In many ways, 2018 ended the same way that it began in American Canyon – with traffic and congestion on the top of everyone’s mind, and the continued rise of property values bringing the Bay Area’s housing crunch to what used to be an affordable bedroom community.

Yet in other important ways, much changed in American Canyon, with a major project approved after years of debate, new faces in City Hall and elsewhere, and some possible new solutions shaping up to vexing problems.

Here’s a look at a few of the top stories from the files of the American Canyon Eagle and Napa Valley Register.

Cannabis:

The year saw American Canyon move from among the most conservative of the county’s governments on cannabis to being, in some respects, the most progressive. After state voters approved Proposition 64 in 2016, legalizing possession, home growth, and commercial sale of marijuana, the city quickly passed an ordinance essentially putting a hold on any growth and sale: up to six indoor plants were allowed, but outdoor growth and all commercial activity were banned.

After hearing from residents and cannabis activists in town meetings in 2017 and 2018, the city changed course.

In December, the city council voted to allow up to six cannabis-related businesses within city limits, including “commercial cultivation, manufacturing, distribution, testing labs, and retail non-storefront” businesses such as delivery services. No other part of Napa County has approved such an expansive list, although several have approved outdoor cultivation for personal use and the city of Napa is in the process of permitting its first dispensaries for retail sale, though initially they will be limited to customers with medical marijuana referrals from doctors.

Cannabis advocates were disappointed, however, that American Canyon chose not to join neighboring Vallejo in permitting retail sales.

New Faces:

The 2017 retirement of longtime City Manager Dana Shigley led the way for a series of changes in leadership around the city in various agencies. In city government, former Public Works Director Jason Holley was named as permanent city manager in April. He was replaced as public works director by his former deputy, Steve Hartwig, a month later.

While city staff turned over, however, voters decided to stick with continuity on the city council, returning incumbents Mark Joseph and David Oro and turning back three challengers.

Voters were in a more restive mood in the race for Napa Valley College Board of Trustees, where upstart Elizabeth Goff, an American Canyon High School teacher with no previous political experience, decisively defeated board chairperson Mary Ann Mancuso. Goff will represent a district that includes American Canyon and parts of Napa.

Housing:

Housing prices continued to rise in American Canyon, from an average of $507,540 in September of 2017 to $538,589 a year later, an increase of 6.1 percent. In what had been considered the most affordable of Napa County’s cities, the sight of million-dollar-plus homes no longer seemed shocking.

Efforts to ease a growing housing crunch, however, ran into vigorous opposition.

In September, for example, an unidentified group created a website and began circulating fliers questioning the plan for Canyon Crossings Apartments, which would put 268 units on 15 acres north of Napa Junction Road.

“Our roads and schools are already congested or at capacity, and a development of this density will only worsen the situation,” the opponents argued.

The developer, however, was undeterred and the project remains active before city planners.

The long-delayed Watson Ranch project, meanwhile, finally came before city council after a dozen years of debate and study. The project would be the city’s largest ever, with more than 1,200 housing units, 176,000 square feet of retail, 53 acres of parks, a new elementary school and a payment to fund part of a new middle school, and other amenities.

The developer and city officials admitted that adding more than 4,000 new residents to the city would affect already tight traffic, so to compensate the city plans to extend Rio Del Mar to the east; connect Devlin Road with Green Island Road; and to extend Newell Drive northward, allowing motorists to bypass Highway 29 through American Canyon.

In the end, the project had unanimous support from council members and widespread support from civic groups, county and school officials, and others.

But the one holdout was a coalition of area labor unions, which wanted a labor agreement with the developer. They added some last minute drama to the process by floating a referendum to challenge approval of the project on the 2020 ballot. After weeks of collecting signatures, however, the unions declined to file the petition. It remains unclear whether they failed to gather the requisite signatures or made some kind of separate agreement with the developer.

At the same time city council was considering the Watson Ranch project, city voters were considering joining in a countywide plan to raise the Transient Occupancy Tax – the levy paid by guests in hotels and inns – by 1 percentage point to fund affordable housing projects. The change would have raised about $140,000 for American Canyon projects.

City officials had been reluctant to join other county governments in putting the matter before voters, saying such a fund would be better spent on traffic-related projects, but they eventually agreed to put it on the ballot.

In the end, however, the measure fell just a handful of votes short, getting 66.41 percent of the vote. It needed 66.6 percent to pass. Similar measures passed in all the other county’s jurisdictions.

Traffic:

Almost no issue in American Canyon is complete without a discussion of traffic. Every project that came before the city, from minor commercial buildings to the sprawling Watson Ranch development, came with complaints about the effect on traffic.

Built into the Watson Ranch project was a complex series of moves, including extending Devlin Road and Newell Drive, to help divert traffic from the jammed Highway 29.

In October, city officials heard from residents and also outlined their own plans. They said relief is coming, though the process is slow and expensive. The prospect of adding lanes to Highway 29 seems dim, since the state controls the highway, but a Caltrans representative told residents they are working on new equipment to better time lights to accommodate traffic and are coordinating with the Napa Valley Transportation Authority on possible improvements, though there were no specifics.

Property owners along the heavily commercial Green Island Road, meanwhile, finally agreed on a plan to improve the truck-ravaged street. They plan to vote in February to create a special assessment district, raising funds to back $14 million in bonds to completely reconstruct the road, adding a third lane, new turn lanes, and relocate utility lines to better accommodate big trucks.

Editor’s Note: This story has been modified to remove an error on the status of the Napa Valley Unified School District Board of Trustees seat in American Canyon.

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You can reach Sean Scully at 256-2246 or sscully@napanews.com.

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Editor

Sean has been editor of the Napa Valley Register since April of 2014. His previous credits include the Press Democrat, The Weekly Calistogan, The Washington Times and Time and People magazines.