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Buried in the first public draft of a 127-page study of St. Helena’s housing policies is the target date for the adoption of the city’s updated General Plan. It’s “early 2015” — almost 10 years and $1.2 million after the update process started.

Opinions vary widely on whether the delay represents bureaucratic bungling, political maneuvering or an honest attempt to make the plan more representative of the community’s wishes.

Chuck Vondra, who helped organize a slow-growth community group that’s been influential in reshaping the plan, said the delay isn’t as bad as it seems because the real “meat and potatoes” work of the update didn’t start until 2009. He said the council has given people a chance to weigh in on the process and improve a 2010 draft that, while generally solid, was too growth-friendly.

“We’ve spent over a million dollars, so let’s make sure we get it right,” Vondra said.

Bill Savidge, who served on two committees that worked on the General Plan in the late 2000s, was more pessimistic.

“You look at these City Council meetings (on the General Plan) and there’s almost no one in the audience,” he said. “I think everybody’s given up on it, frankly.”

Sandy Ericson, the most vocal critic of the process, said the current council’s revisions to the General Plan represent “a massive campaign to retool an entire city according to the ideology of maybe eight people.”

The first General Plan Update Subcommittee was appointed by the City Council in June 2005. Its 16 members were charged with laying out a process and timeline for the update, finding a consultant to write the plan, and deciding whether the city should start a new plan from scratch or just update the previous 1993 General Plan. They opted for a blend of the two approaches that significantly reworked the old plan, but kept a lot of its policies.

By December 2006, when the city was putting together a new subcommittee to help write the plan, a flier predicted that the process “may take 2-3 years.”

That committee, which became known as the General Plan Update Steering Committee (GPUSC), oversaw a community “visioning” process, met at least once a month and debated key policies like future street extensions. Meanwhile, a team of business representatives, citizens and city officials produced a parallel economic study recommending the St. Helena market itself as a health destination and the development of a new business sector along those lines.

But even before the GPUSC released its draft plan in August 2010, there were signs of trouble. The city hired a second team of consultants to replace the first team, and Audrey Knight, the staffer who’d been overseeing the update and had even chaired the GPUSC, resigned from city employment in 2008 under circumstances that were never made public.

Volunteers Bill Savidge and Bonnie Long, who had served on both General Plan committees, resigned in early 2010 after the City Council decided to hold a new round of town hall meetings to collect public input on the most contentious issues, like housing and street extensions.

A newly formed group called St. Helena Residents for Responsible Growth started voicing concerns about the adverse effects of new housing development, especially on the east side of town. Citizens who were politically aligned with the group, named SHRFRGs, spoke up at GPUSC meetings and dominated the 2010 town hall meetings, including two where people used electronic voting devices to express their views.

The strong opposition to street extensions stood in contrast with the results of surveys conducted during the GPUSC’s pre-2010 visioning process. Debates have raged ever since over which results more accurately reflect the city’s overall sentiments.

Long believes the GPUSC did its best to reflect the community’s views and the council’s wishes.

“We got a lot of citizen input,” Long said. “I don’t know what more we could have done. … It’s frustrating.”

Almost approved

The council came close to approving the GPUSC’s plan on Nov. 9, 2010. At that meeting, the council reached consensus on some of the plan’s stickiest issues.

Rather than an outright ban on construction in the floodplain, which would have struck a blow against Dennis Hunter’s plans to build houses behind the new levee, the council added a General Plan policy directing a study to determine if tighter regulations were needed.

Moving on to the extension of Adams Street to Silverado Trail, the council added a policy clarifying that developers building along the extension should bear a “significant portion” of the cost of extending the street.

Then, with the plan poised for approval, Councilmember Eric Sklar asked Alan Galbraith to clarify some concerns about water that had been raised by Galbraith and Tim Nieman. Both had been serving on the Infrastructure Subcommittee, which was studying the city’s water system.

Stepping up to the podium, Galbraith said he was “deeply concerned” about the plan’s environmental impact report, which stated that city water customers could conserve 495 acre-feet of water per year, enough to accommodate the plan’s “likely buildout scenario.”

He said that estimate was inconsistent with the General Plan itself, which noted that in dry years the city didn’t even have enough water to meet current demand, much less the demand for an additional 921 people.

Galbraith urged the council to determine the safe annual yield of the city’s water system, revise the EIR accordingly with the Planning Commission’s help, and recirculate the EIR for a second round of public comments.

Sklar agreed. He said he was “one of the greatest advocates of getting this done now,” but the city couldn’t make the mistake of overestimating its capacity to conserve water.

“It’s only one thing left to do,” and it shouldn’t take long, said Sklar. His motion passed unanimously.

Sklar recently said his biggest regret from his eight years on the council was not moving to approve the General Plan on the spot and straighten out the water policies later. Sklar said he’s sure he would have gotten the three votes needed to approve the plan, maybe four.

Sklar was not running for re-election, and he realized his motion would delay the plan’s adoption until after the November 2010 election. But he believed water was a vital issue for St. Helena, and thought the discrepancy would be resolved within three months, he said.

“I was under the mistaken belief that future City Councils would be like all past City Councils, and would be responsible in looking out for the well-being of the city as a whole, and would pass the General Plan quickly once the water information was in,” Sklar said.

He added that subsequent councils “have acted in the most irresponsible way I’ve ever observed a city government act, and they’ve done so in an effort to put their very particular, personal and parochial interests into the General Plan, which is not the purpose of a General Plan.”

‘Who’s in charge?’

The Safe Yield Committee, consisting of former members of the Infrastructure Subcommittee, concluded the city’s water system had a safe annual yield of 1,950 acre-feet. But even with the water matter resolved, councilmembers balked at approving the plan, and suggested more public input was needed. Mayor Del Britton laid out a list of 20 changes he’d like to make, in addition to the new water policies recommended by the Safe Yield Committee.

Anne Cottrell and John Sales, the two volunteers who’d led the GPUSC, co-authored an open letter to the council in September 2011, urging the council to approve their plan, and questioning whether the council valued the committee’s work.

“There are a few detractors, very vocal, but the GPUSC listened to the broader community in forming the plan, modified it where it felt was necessary and presented a finished product that was passed by the Planning Commission,” they wrote. “Why, once the water issue was addressed, is the City Council reluctant to approve it?”

In April 2011 the council fired City Manager Mary Neilan without cause, and both sides signed confidentiality agreements pledging not to reveal what led to the split. Neilan’s firing came six months after the retirement of Planning Director Carol Poole, who was never replaced.

Some critics say the resulting vacancies, compounded by some management-level resignations in late 2013 and early 2014, have made it tough for city staff to handle a process as complex, time-consuming and politically sensitive as the General Plan update.

“There’s a real problem with the city government, with so many people leaving,” Savidge said. “Who’s in charge? Who cares? It’s really sad.”

In late 2011 the council replaced Neilan with City Manager Gary Broad, who had prior experience as a planning director and city manager. He identified the General Plan update as one of his priorities when he was hired, but the council only discussed the General Plan sporadically during 2012, although it did make strides on new water policies that resolved some of the questions that had led to the plan being delayed in 2010.

2013 changes

When Councilmember Ann Nevero was appointed mayor after Britton died in January 2013, the council made the General Plan a priority, and decided to conduct a final line-by-line review because, as Nevero put it on Tuesday, “the world had changed” while the Infrastructure and Safe Yield committees were researching the city’s water system. Newly released census data showed the effects of the recession and reframed the debate over growth.

“We had a recession that completely changed the economic revenue stream to the city and affected property values — the housing market fell through,” Nevero said. “If you want to say we started (the General Plan update) in 2005, that was a different world back then.”

Vondra said the census showed that “a lot of the growth projected for St. Helena from 2000 to 2010 … didn’t happen. We had a huge recession and the population shrunk during those 10 years.

“Why are we putting a lot of pro-growth stuff (into the General Plan) when obviously we’re not growing at the rate people thought we would?”

During its 2013 review of the General Plan, the council made a sweeping change, replacing a network of proposed street extensions with non-vehicular paths intended for cyclists and pedestrians.

The street extensions had always been controversial, especially among east-side residents who believed that extending Adams Street and Starr Avenue would add too much traffic to residential streets and invite development on vacant parcels like the Hunter property.

Vondra and others recall that shortly before approving the 2010 plan, the GPUSC had unanimously voted to retitle a map of “future roadway extensions” to reflect that the proposals were just “study areas,” but city staff failed to make that change.

“(The GPUSC) did a great job, but the people doing the final wordsmithing really reshaped some key areas involving growth that didn’t do justice to the intent of the committee or what the public was saying,” Vondra said.

Nevero and Vondra also pointed to outdated policies in the plan’s Climate Change chapter, which has been updated by the current council.

Another recurring theme of the council’s 2013 review was the replacement of words like “create” and “develop” with words like “encourage” and “consider.” Nevero said the council wanted to provide flexibility for future councils.

The council also changed references to St. Helena’s flood project, saying it “reduced the risk of flooding” on affected properties rather than “protected” them — another policy change with implications for the Hunter project.

The 2010 draft didn’t need a massive overhaul, Vondra said. “A lot of that work was fine and great,” he said. “We probably had it about 85 or 90 percent right, but there were a few things that had to be revisited.”

Sandy Ericson, a member of the General Plan committee appointed in 2005, has strongly criticized the council’s changes, which she says downplay the need for affordable housing, wrongly assume that hiking and biking will become the city’s dominant modes of transportation, and generally represent the narrow interests of the SHRFRGs.

“They have made sure that their friends, neighbors, business contacts on the east side, etc., are protected from anything that would be different than it is now,” Ericson said. “Every possible syllable in the General Plan has been changed to design this blanket protection — the thoroughness is astounding and it is also why it has taken years to make the changes.

“I now believe that we do not just have NIMBYs (Not in My Back Yard), but we have a vigilante group that uses government and planning instead of rifles.”

At the end of 2013, a new problem came to light. City staff hadn’t kept up with the flurry of changes the council had made throughout the year. City Manager Broad hired outside help to watch hours of council meetings and make all the requested changes.

When presented with an updated draft in February, councilmembers agreed to go through it one more time, chapter by chapter. The council is now nearing the end of that process, and could finish the last chapters at its May 27 meeting.

The next big question is whether the council should kick the new document back to the Planning Commission, which reviewed the 2010 plan shortly after the GPUSC finished it. That could add months onto the process, but it would give commissioners a chance to look at all the changes the plan has undergone in the last four years.

“There are so many ideas floating around town and such a lack of a unified goal,” said Savidge, a former city councilmember. “We have a diverse population, and there aren’t just two sides — there are three or four sides.”

“I think you elect representatives to the City Council to use their leadership ability and their judgment, based on all the people they’ve heard from. It comes down to providing leadership.”

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