Syar Industries, operating for over 85 years on the Napa Vallejo Highway, has an application pending before the county Planning Commission to increase its production of mined, aggregate materials for construction by 1 million cubic yards, and operate in that manner for the next 35 years. The commissioners have a unique opportunity to enhance the quality of life in Napa and advance its famous reputation as a place with abundant, unspoiled open spaces by working with the state in acquiring Syar’s business and preserving the real estate forever. So the commissioners are not faced simply with a “yes” or “no” decision to create a bigger mine, but a more profound one that could favorably affect the county for generations if it considers a broader vision.
The Syar application has been pending for a number of years, and because a commission vote is imminent, the response from neighbors living nearby and advocates for the Skyline Wilderness Park has been swift and sharp in opposition. The neighbors cite impacts to the ecosystem that have not been adequately considered or dismissed as manageable with little mitigation by GHD Inc. of Eureka, the author of the Environmental Impact Report that will govern how the expanded mine operates. Environmental protection groups like the San Francisco Baykeeper allege the existing operation is a polluter and in violation of the federal Clean Water Act. Baykeeper has notified the applicant and the state it intends to litigate (again) with Syar. The local Sierra Club and the Skyline Park Citizens Association also oppose the mine’s expansion.
The county’s allowed uses within the industrial district where Syar works permits businesses “such as administrative facilities, research institutions, and specialized manufacturing organizations.” Mining is not manufacturing. Syar then operates in this zoning district as a “pre-existing non-conforming use.” This is a real estate term, simply translated, that allows for the use of a property that is out of character with the neighborhood it resides in, often in violation of the zoning overlay. Furthering the idea, the deviating use was by definition in place before consistent zoning codes and maps were adopted, and was allowed to remain after their implementation because it was existing and forcing the property owner to change the use to conform to the zoning code could create an economic hardship, or possibly a “taking” by the city or county demanding the change.
Here are the seemingly conflicting dynamics at play: Neighbors and watchdog groups want Syar denied its permit to expand, its operation is inconsistent with every other land use nearby, and Syar likes the income it realizes in mining building materials for use in the region so much it wants to grow.
How to protect Skyline Park and the adjacent neighborhoods and realize the profits Syar expects by virtue of an expanded mining operation? The answer lies in the purchase of the Syar properties and incorporation of its 920 acres into the Skyline Wilderness Park.
How could the county afford the acquisition of Syar’s 920 acres? The Napa Valley Exposition within the city limits of Napa is Syar, in reverse. It operates as an underutilized fairground, RV park and amphitheater within what is functioning as a semi-urban, mixed-use neighborhood in downtown Napa bordered by Soscol Avenue and Silverado Trail. It has a market value between $40 million and $60 million. The Expo properties should be sold by the state’s 25th District Ag Association — at the county commissioners’ urging — to a developer who will eventually weave the property into the neighborhoods to its east, west and north. The sale proceeds would be used to purchase the Syar Industries properties for the benefit of the association and the county. Among many other potential sources to complete the Syar purchase are revenues from a new fairground complex.
You have free articles remaining.
Napa County and the association should then reclaim the stripped cliffs at Syar and design a proper entrance to Skyline Wilderness Park, coupled with building a fairground, natural stone amphitheater, campground, and a visitor center within the new Skyline Park expansion.
Due to its visibility and ease of access, the Syar site is a superior location for events of any sort than one that has become crowded out by downtown Napa’s reach into the environs around Third Street and Silverado Trail — and is obsolescent in its own right.
Last century’s strip mines contributed to the region’s growth by providing raw materials, yet these operations today, given Napa’s economic evolution into agribusiness supported by the hospitality industry, are no longer appropriate. There is too much at risk. The county’s supervisors and planning commissioners must focus on preserving the quality of life Napans enjoy and the county has become famous for, solve the problems of two major nonconforming land uses that responsible growth has deemed inappropriate, and leverage its natural assets to further confirm Napa’s reputation as a recreational paradise. These county officials will never be faced with a greater opportunity to locate appropriate uses in the places where they belong. They must act with confidence in executing what will be a complex yet necessary program of sale, acquisition and redevelopment.
We as concerned citizens must support them in undertaking their work to build an appropriate gateway: Napa Valley on the Syar Industries properties, in conjunction with realizing the careful expansion of downtown Napa onto the current exposition acreage. Both endeavors are economically and environmentally justifiable to the future; they will only further the county’s deserved reputation as a delightful place to visit, and an enviable place to live, for many years to come.
Piazzola is a veteran real estate asset manager, with experience in management, acquisition and disposition of real estate for a variety of firms and projects, including Disney and the Howard Hughes Corp.’s South Street Seaport renovation in New York. He lives in Napa.