AMERICAN CANYON — Watson Ranch, now a decade in the making, is so big and important to American Canyon that the City Council and the Planning Commission met jointly on Tuesday for three hours to talk about the latest vision for the ambitious development project.
But at the end of the lengthy discussion, which included glowing promises by the developer and plenty of favorable comments by residents, the project still has myriad questions to answer and problems to solve before city leaders will be in a position to vote on it.
Lead developer Terry McGrath and planner John Wilbanks kicked off the marathon meeting with more than an hour of presentations showing what Watson Ranch would bring to the city.
First and foremost, there is the proposed town center in which the ruins of the old cement factory—an iconic symbol for American Canyon—would be transformed into the Napa Valley Ruins and Gardens, complete with entertainment, art, food and retail businesses.
Wilbanks referred to this part of the project as “probably the most important priority to the city.”
The town center is, indeed, the part of Watson Ranch that generates the most buzz among residents who have longed for what McGrath called a true “there’s there for the city,” which currently lacks a traditional downtown or Main Street for people to visit and congregate.
But in order to make the Napa Valley Ruins and Gardens a viable economic investment for the developers, a substantial housing project has been attached to the plan, one that would add another 1,250 homes to the northeast section of American Canyon.
It is this part of the project that has generated the most questions and concerns for city leaders, many of whom want to see the town center happen.
McGrath and his development team have already scaled back the housing plan from an earlier draft that called for building 1,500 homes.
In addition to discussing the number and types of homes, McGrath and Wilbanks went over a wide range of issues from water supplies to traffic congestion to new schools and more.
In many areas, however, they failed to offer specifics for how the project would mitigate impacts.
On the issue of how adding 1,250 families would impact traffic on nearby Highway 29, Wilbanks said a traffic study was still being conducted. It is expected to be completed by late February or early March.
On the issue of providing water for the project — in a town that has no water to spare for new homes — McGrath said they were still in talks with American Canyon as well as Napa and even Vallejo on a solution.
On the issue of building a new school to accommodate what could mean another 1,500 students living in the city, McGrath again conceded he was still negotiating these details with the Napa Valley Unified School District.
Once Wilbanks and McGrath had finished making their points, council members and planning commissioners methodically listed their concerns for more than hour.
Nearly all of them expressed worries over the impact of adding approximately 3,000 more residents and what that will mean for the highway.
In addition to this traffic concern, Planning Commission Chairman Eric Altman pointed out that the only north-south entry and exit route for residents of Watson Ranch would be the extension of Newell Drive.
“I’m not comfortable with the layout vis-a-vis an emergency situation,” said Altman. “If something were to happen to Newell and it was impassable, I don’t know how people would get out or how emergency responders would get in.”
“That’s a big safety issue for me,” he added.
Even Councilmember Joan Bennett, who insisted she really wants the project to succeed, told McGrath that he needed to secure all of the necessary water for the development.
“That would be one of the first things I would want to nail down,” said Bennett.
The Planning Commission’s newest member, Bernie Zipay, was largely silent on many of the issues raised. But he didn’t hesitate to chime in on the subject of schools and where the new kids from Watson Ranch would attend class, particularly since McGrath talked only of building a new elementary school.
“Our middle school is already maxed out,” said Zipay. “We have to talk about both an elementary and middle school at the same time. We can’t do one without the other.”
McGrath and Wilbanks did not respond to any of the questions raised, only because after three hours of talking, which included many positive endorsements from residents during the public comment period, the council and commission decided it was best to bring the matter back at another meeting and allow the developers to provide answers then.