This is the fourth in a series of interviews of Napa City Council candidates for the Nov. 6 election.
Since moving to Napa in March 2008, Mary Luros has built a career and life in her adopted home – but now fears spiraling costs will pluck that home away from many of her townsfolk.
“I’m watching my friends leave Napa because they can’t afford to live here, small businesses close because they can’t afford the rent and can’t find qualified workers, and worsening traffic as people commute up to two hours to get to work because they don’t make enough to live here,” the local attorney and City Council candidate recently wrote to the Napa Valley Register. “The quality of life of our residents is suffering because of a lack of housing, soaring rents, and excessive traffic.”
Campaigning to regain the council seat she held for nearly two years in 2015-16, Luros, a mother to two young children, is promising a hard look at Napa’s zoning and housing policies in hopes of catering to its residents as much as to the vacationers driving an increasingly hotel-and hospitality-based economy.
“All of these issues come back to the current imbalance in Napa between what we provide for locals and what we provide for tourists,” said Luros, who in a September debate of council hopefuls warned that “Napa’s better tomorrow is in jeopardy” from record-high housing costs and a tiny vacancy rate pressuring lower-income workers.
Luros, who was defeated in the 2016 Napa election, is the only one of six candidates on the Nov. 6 ballot with previous council experience other than the three-term incumbent Peter Mott. At least one of the two open seats will be filled by a challenger who will replace Jim Krider, a 2017 appointee who declined to pursue a full four-year term.
Key to preserving Napa as a hometown and not only a vacation hot spot, said Luros, is to allow for increased multi-family housing construction – a task that could be enshrined in a new city General Plan now in the early stages of creation. The plan, which will determine what types of development will be allowed in which areas of the city, is expected to guide Napa’s growth through about 2040.
Allowing more residential projects to go higher and denser – and pursuing construction on in-fill and city surplus lands – is necessary to create homes affordable to the bulk of Napa’s work force rather than second homes or other higher-cost housing, according to Luros. With Napa County’s Ag Preserve severely limiting growth into the unincorporated wine country and a rural-urban limit (RUL) sharply defining the limits of Napa’s expansion, persuading Napans to accept housing beyond the suburban single-family model will be crucial, Luros argued.
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“The RUL and Ag Preserve deal is that the city limits won’t change, but if the population goes up, then we have to go up,” she said in a Register interview. “If you have a community conversation and identify places appropriate for higher density, it makes it harder for the neighbors to challenge it. Then we can say that we as a community have decided where housing should go, and it is in your backyard.”
Luros also called for Napa to slow down the pace of hotel approvals and orient more of the city’s retailing as well as its housing toward residents’ needs, including creating a path for local-oriented businesses to be built within walkable distance of housing. That need is reflected in situations such as the potential replacement of the Compadres Mexican restaurant with a 24-hour cardroom, for which the owners of the Lincoln Avenue property applied for city permit in August.
“It’s affordable, nice and has plenty of parking – but (the Compadres owners) don’t own the land and now the landlord is kicking them out for a cardroom,” she said. “I don’t see that our leadership has the vision to say we need to balance the needs of residents and tourists. It’s an example of what’s happening with our imbalance issues.”
As Napa begins laying out its development strategy, the city also is in the early stages of planning a new headquarters downtown – but the potential cost and complexity has Luros seeking a pause on the project to rethink it, with more attention paid to the needs of residents and city employees.
“A lot of money has been spent so far, so the first thing we need to do is slow down, save what can be saved and figure out what we really want in this project,” she said, pointing to cost estimates of about $121 million including the expense of relocating workers during about two years of construction. “The city never made a budget and because of that, we have a project that’s grown exponentially.”
Although Napa currently authorizes marijuana sales only for those with medical needs, and no local outlets have yet opened, Luros expressed support for eventually opening the city to adult-use retailing to respect “the will of the people” who passed the 2016 state ballot initiative in favor of recreational dispensaries.
“I think it would be fine if done in appropriately zoned areas,” she said. (Napa’s current cannabis ordinance allows dispensaries in industrial, office-park and medical office zones, but not downtown or in conventional retail areas.) “I see where (opponents) are coming from, but we should mirror the amount of regulation we have on the wine industry. If we heavily regulate wineries and what they do, cannabis (sellers) should expect the same thing.”