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Neighbors who have fought the proposed Hunter subdivision are planning to file a federal lawsuit accusing the city of St. Helena of housing discrimination.

Citing two recent U.S. Supreme Court decisions, the groups filed a claim with the city on Oct. 21 calling St. Helena “a segregated city, with an affluent White west side and a diverse east side where most Hispanics, seniors, and members of other protected groups live largely in a concentrated area near the Napa River.”

A letter accompanying the claim calls on the city to “put an immediate moratorium on the construction of any multi-family and affordable housing on the east side, and require that all such housing be built on the west side until an appropriate balance is achieved.”

Attorney and St. Helena resident David Bradshaw submitted the letter and the claim on behalf of St. Helena Residents For An Equitable General Plan, the McCorkle East Side Neighborhood Group, and the Protect The St. Helena Vineyard Riverwalk Community Group.

The city council discussed the claim in closed session last Thursday. City Attorney Tom Brown declined to comment on pending litigation.

A letter accompanying the claim accuses the city of housing discrimination against Hispanics, seniors “and other protected classes.” The letter claims that 98 percent of St. Helena’s low-income, affordable and multi-family rental units are on the east side of town.

“The concentration of multi-family and affordable units in the eastern-most part of St. Helena means that minorities and seniors — practically speaking — are restricted to one area of the city,” Bradshaw said in a statement to the Star. “Sad to say, this is an area with poor infrastructure, no public schools, no churches, few parks, inadequate community services, and little or no public transportation.”

City policies, land use designations and zoning ordinances are responsible for the disparity between the east and west sides, the letter alleges. It states that the Low/Medium-Density Residential zoning designation that’s been proposed in the draft General Plan “virtually exempts the west side from multi-family rental units and other affordable housing.”

The city “continues to actively promote” multi-family and affordable housing on the east side through the Brenkle Court project on McCorkle Avenue, which the city purchased and donated to Our Town St. Helena; the proposed Hunter project, which would include 36 affordable housing units; and the city-owned Adams Street property, where the city is considering development proposals that could include affordable housing.

The upcoming lawsuit will seek an order requiring the city to eliminate the proposed Low-Medium-Density designation and make other changes to the city’s General Plan, zoning ordinances and land use policies “to ensure fair housing in St. Helena,” the letter states.

The timing of the federal lawsuit “depends on what the city decides to do with our claim,” Bradshaw told the Star.

Bradshaw said St. Helena Residents For An Equitable General Plan was recently incorporated, and “we really do not know how many members there are in the other groups that support our claim.”

“We do know, however, that a large and growing group of neighbors on the east side is opposed to the Hunter project, the proposed extensions of Starr and Adams, and the city’s failure to ensure that affordable housing is distributed equitably throughout the entire community,” he said.

The 87-unit Hunter project is still in the environmental review phase. Planning Director Noah Housh said the city is awaiting updated information from the applicant’s civil engineer, so he’s not sure when an updated Draft Environmental Impact Report will be released to the public.

The city faced a federal housing discrimination lawsuit in 2012, although that one alleged a critical shortage of affordable housing, not an overabundance of it in one area.

Former tenants of a substandard Pope Street property, along with several advocacy groups and the late attorney David Grabill, accused the city of failing to provide enough low- and moderate-income housing for workers. Settlement terms required the city to pay into its affordable housing trust fund, adopt policies favorable to affordable housing, and set period affordable housing targets through 2022.

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St. Helena Reporter

Jesse has been a reporter for the St. Helena Star since 2006.