By Jesse Duarte

Developers of the 45-unit Magnolia Oaks subdivision have less than two months to resolve the problems that plague the proposal.

The St. Helena City Council agreed Tuesday to continue their discussion to give developers time to wrangle with access issues and make the project less intrusive to neighbors.

“You’ve got three people here who’d be willing to support this project if you work out a couple issues,” Councilmember Eric Sklar told developer Nick Rossi, referring to problems with access, affordability details and the location of water tanks on the site.

Fair offer sought
One year after being filed with the city, the project’s biggest hurdle is still securing a second access to the site. El Bonita Avenue is the only access to the existing homes on El Bonita and the Lugo Park subdivision to the west. Magnolia Oaks developers have been struggling to acquire a second access road south to Sulphur Springs Avenue, but negotiations have been unsuccessful.

The planning commission agreed March 6 that a strip of property west of Zumwalt Ford, owned by Scott and Karen Zumwalt, would be the best site for such a road. The construction of the road is now a required mitigation measure for the property.

Scott Zumwalt told the council he was disappointed by Magnolia Oaks developer Nick Rossi’s prior statements to the council and the Star regarding the negotiations. Zumwalt has placed his attorneys in charge of the negotiations, but he told the council he is still open to a fair offer on his property.

The developers plan to use the Zumwalt property not only for an access road to Sulphur Springs, but also for four affordable units that would be built during the second of the project’s three phases.

Since the road is a required mitigation measure, the city would have to acquire the land itself through purchase or “condemnation” — the exercising of eminent domain powers — within 120 days of approving the project if the developers are unable to acquire it themselves. The cost of the purchase would be passed on to the developers.

Sklar said he hoped the developers and Zumwalt would reach an agreement soon. “If not, I think eminent domain is a fair and reasonable way to get a fair price for the property,” he said.

Zumwalt referred the council’s questions regarding eminent domain to his attorneys.

Not all councilmembers were enthused about the prospect of eminent domain.

“This is St. Helena. This is a friendly town. We do friendly deals all the time,” said Councilmember Michael Novak. “I don’t believe in eminent domain and it’s something I would not vote on.”

“By approving it we’re putting ourselves in a box where we have to condemn the property,” said Mayor Del Britton. It would be “foolish” to approve the project before the developers have acquired the land, he said.

Signal would delay traffic
Other required traffic mitigation measures include left-turn pockets on Main Street, Vintage Avenue and El Bonita. Several project neighbors have proposed installing a traffic light at the El Bonita/Main intersection, but a traffic study found that signalization would increase travel time on Main Street by 36 seconds for northbound traffic and 47 seconds for southbound traffic.

Councilmembers were pleased that 18 of the project’s 45 units — 40 percent — would be affordable, including two single-family homes, 10 apartments and six second units above garages. However, Sklar said the city would have to find a way to make all those units permanently affordable.

The two units’ affordability is crucial because without them the project would not be 40 percent affordable, and would become ineligible for the stash of building permits set aside by the city for such projects.

No water capacity
Britton’s and Novak’s opposition was based largely on the project’s sewer and water demands.

Developers would be required to furnish the city with an aerator at the wastewater treatment plant, which is expected to offset the sewer demand created by the new units. Its water demand would be mitigated by an on-site landscape irrigation well.

“How we could do this just boggles my mind,” Britton said. “We need the affordable housing, but we need it when we can support it. We can’t support it now from either a sewer or water perspective.”

“We’re in Phase II already,” said Novak, referring to the city’s water restrictions. “We don’t have … the water capacity to let this go through.”

Britton said the project’s mitigation measures were inadequate, and questioned why its impacts had been analyzed with a mitigated negative declaration rather than a full environmental impact report.

Novak shared Britton’s concern, saying the project should have triggered an EIR.

Councilmembers also criticized the developers’ placement of two water storage tanks. Adrianna Martin, speaking on behalf of her father Carlos, said the tanks would be an eyesore for her father’s nearby property. Councilmembers agreed, and told developers to find a better place for the tanks.

Councilmembers praised other aspects of the project’s design, including its preservation of 90 percent of the 133 oak trees dotting the 5.86-acre property.

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