No matter where their views diverged, the six candidates for the Napa City Council agreed on at least one thing Tuesday night – this November’s election, perhaps more than others, could help define their community’s shape and character for years to come.
Even as a flourishing wine and tourism trade bolster the local economy, council candidates appearing at a debate in downtown Napa emphasized the urgency of solving the seemingly intractable problems of rising rents and home prices amid a vanishingly small vacancy rate.
And with the city starting to prepare a new General Plan – expected to be its guidebook to what gets built where for the next 20 years – voters’ choices on Nov. 6 could define the kind of city Napa becomes, and who can or cannot live there, argued former Councilmember Mary Luros.
“Imagine a Napa where your family and friends can afford to live here as your neighbors,” Luros, opening the two-hour debate, told a capacity audience of more than 120 people at the Silo’s music club before warning that “Napa’s better tomorrow is in jeopardy” as living costs outrace incomes – particularly for those working in the hospitality industries.
Such proclamations reflected an intensifying debate among residents about how Napa should cater to those visiting the city and those living there – and how that balance affects housing, transportation and the rest of daily life.
“Should we build housing or should we build hotels?” asked James Hinton, who is pursuing one of two open council seats after previous campaigns for Congress and the Napa County Board of Supervisors. “Should we fix the roads locals drive on or should we fix the roads that tourists drive on?”
The debate, organized by the Downtown Napa Association and radio stations KVON-AM and KVYN-FM, featured three-term Councilmember Peter Mott and challengers Luros, Hinton, Liz Alessio, Bernie Narvaez and Ricky Hurtado. Candidates are competing for Mott’s seat as well as that of Jim Krider, who was appointed in November 2017 to replace the retired Juliana Inman and chose not to seek a full four-year term.
Several housing-related policies gained wide support among Napa council hopefuls, including a revival of a requirement to set affordable rents for 10 percent of new rental developments, as well as city and county ballot measures that would raise the tax on hotel stays from 12 to 13 percent and steer the surplus into affordable housing programs.
“As someone who’s lived in affordable housing, I know that it works,” said Hurtado. “My parents were able to save up and buy a home in the community. I’m a believer in affordable housing, not a handout but a hand up.”
Failing to put housing within closer reach of working families risks not only driving out lower-income Napans but also depriving the city of business revenue and community as more workers commute from out of town, predicted Narvaez. “By bringing families back into the city it builds our community,” he said, urging not only more home construction but security deposit assistance and other ways to remove roadblocks to would-be tenants.
Mott, who was elected to the City Council in 2006, pointed to city progress in fostering lower-priced housing – more than 500 units under construction, approved or being reviewed – but cautioned Napans to understand the often slow pace of finding grants and funding to build dwellings to be offered below market rates. “It’s not that city isn’t cognizant, but the bigger challenge is that these things take time,” he told the audience.
After debating how to better house residents, several of the candidates then questioned Napa’s ambitious plan to house its own government – a downtown civic center slated to be built from 2019 to 2021.
The multimillion-dollar plan to centralize city offices and the police department on First Street came under attack from Alessio, Hinton and Luros, who questioned the project’s potential cost, the wisdom of borrowing so heavily and the prospect of Napa departments needing temporary quarters for about two years of construction. (Among the funding possibilities for the complex is using tax revenue from a “superblock” of housing, shops and hotel rooms that would replace the existing City Hall and police station on Second Street.)
Alessio asked officials to suspend planning and heed the views of police officers like Patrick Wilson, who criticized the civic center project in a Register letter to the editor published on Tuesday before the debate. “The community is not as included in this project as we need to be,” she said.
“Initially I thought this was a great project, but the first step should’ve been to make a budget, come up with a number we weren’t willing to go beyond,” said Luros, who reviewed earlier versions of a new city hall while on the council in 2015-16. “Because we didn’t, this project has grown out of control.”
Beyond the individual issues Napa faces, several candidates emphasized the importance of this election year above others – a year when work is beginning on a general plan that is expected to determine through about 2040 the types and location of development, including the higher-density housing that may keep some households from leaving town.
“I’m doing this because of the 20-year General Plan, because I see the need as I see family members, neighbors, people who want to live here and can’t,” Alessio told spectators. “This is our time to get in balance, to get it right. We need to make you the priority.”
This story has been amended since first posting to acknowledge that funding has yet to be decided.