This is the second in a series of interviews of Napa City Council candidates for the Nov. 6 election.
James Hinton has spent nearly all his life in Napa – and warns that staying in his hometown is becoming harder for many of his townsfolk.
“The standard of living has consistently declined in my 44 years in the Napa Valley, and I don’t see any signs of that stopping,” said Hinton, one of six candidates for two City Council seats in the Nov. 6 election. “Water and sewer rates continue to go up, health insurance rates are going up, rents and home prices continue to skyrocket, and wages are stagnant. Very few people are finding it possible to stay in town anymore, to live and work here.”
Helping more Napans avoid being priced out of their own city – amid a steady climb in rents and home prices – is one of the top priorities for Hinton, a Browns Valley resident making his first run at elected office in his hometown after campaigning for Congress in 2014 and the Napa County Board of Supervisors in 2016.
Hinton, a former professional online poker player who has worked as a political and environmental consultant in recent years, is one of five challengers to the three-term incumbent Peter Mott, a council member since 2006. At least one challenger is assured of joining the council by winning the seat of Jim Krider, who was appointed in 2017 following the retirement of Juliana Inman and did not seek a full four-year term.
A chronically tight supply of housing has pushed the vacancy level in Napa to a historically low 1 percent while allowing median home prices to rise past $600,000. With city leaders close to agreeing on a new general plan to guide development for 20 years or more, Hinton urged leaders to redraw their playbook to foster denser concentrations of smaller residential units, a step he said would better fit a community moving past large suburban homes.
“When I grew up in the Napa, there were a lot of families; now we have a lot more single parents, a lot more single people, people with three or four roommates in the house,” he said in a Thursday interview. “What I want to see are smaller 500-square-foot apartments; Napa has parks, it has a vibrant downtown and it’s got all kinds of things to do in town. I don’t need three bedrooms and a two-car garage and half an acre. We need to focus on small-footprint, higher-density housing that can eliminate commutes.”
Even as surging tourism turns bed-tax revenue into an increasingly important part of Napa’s budget, Hinton advocated giving priority to expanded housing over hotel construction, although he expressed support for hotel projects so long as they include enough parking and robust environmental protections.
As Napa cautiously opens the way toward dispensaries selling medicinal cannabis products, Hinton, one of the city’s most vocal advocates for greater marijuana access, promised to push Napa to join other cities in welcoming the recreational cannabis outlets California voters legalized in 2016. Napa passed its dispensary ordinance in November 2017 and has cleared two of its seven applicants to begin sales, but no stores have yet opened.
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Breaking down lingering resistance to marijuana retailing in Napa is a matter of showing opponents how other cities successfully regulate the industry, according to Hinton, who favors zoning dispensaries similarly to bars and liquor stores.
“There’s plenty of models of success; (resistance) is an excuse people in the community keep using, and we need to keep educating them,” said Hinton, who credits marijuana with relieving symptoms from psoriatic arthritis he said began afflicting him around 2004.
Meanwhile, Hinton has joined his voice with others seeking to slow down or suspend planning of a four-story civic center on downtown First Street, where Napa plans to move both its city hall and its police station. Cost estimates for the project have run to about $121 million, including the expense of temporary office space for city workers during construction.
Hinton called for terminating Napa’s contract with its development partner Plenary Group, then considering other possible sites for city headquarters – with guidance from an advisory committee including residents, city staff and others. “The community should be driving this discussion, or at least be at the table,” he said of the process.
While housing, marijuana and city construction have dominated much of the civic debate in recent months, Hinton also asked residents to also keep a sharp eye on protecting Napa’s two local water sources – Lake Hennessey and Milliken Reservoir – against the risks from encroaching vineyard development north of the city.
“Our county is allowing development above Milliken Reservoir and Lake Hennessey at an alarming rate,” he said, adding he would join Councilmember Scott Sedgley and other local leaders to bolster watershed protection rules. (Hinton also endorsed Measure C, the oak woodland protection initiative that Napa County voters narrowly defeated in June.)
Further setting himself apart from other City Council hopefuls, Hinton is calling for stricter oversight of fifth-generation “small cell” transmitters that wireless carriers hope to roll out for future high-speed Internet service.
In addition, Hinton advocates replacing a 2 percent assessment on hotel stays, which the Napa County lodging industry charges itself for a tourism improvement district, which an equivalent increase in the 12 percent room tax that Napa and other cities could spend as they see fit. (Measures to boost the transient occupancy tax by 1 percent are on the ballot this November in the county and each of its five municipalities, with the surplus to be reserved for affordable housing efforts.)