Big Projects Barrel Toward Groundbreaking In Napa Valley's Smallest Town

For six years, the look of Yountville was stuck in 1999. That's when the town's building moratorium began, putting any potential development on ice as the town searched for a reliable water source.

The freeze finally ended in the summer of 2005, when town officials sealed a deal with the state's Department of Veteran Affairs for a supply from nearby Rector Dam. With water again available, long-stalled projects are drawing ever closer to breaking ground. Three developments already have the town council's green light to build, and developers have only to pull building permits to bring on the bulldozers.

Three other projects are on the brink of receiving the council's approval, according to Town Planner Bob Tiernan.

Change in the air

This fast-approaching boom is destined to be Yountville's last, since only a scattering of vacant and buildable lots will remain within town limits after the six projects go up.

It's a defining moment for Yountville that some residents welcome, and others dread. Some fear the changes will further exaggerate what they perceive to be Yountville's long-standing imbalance — too much focus on tourists, and not enough on residents.

"As the town develops so many more hotels and restaurants, it just feels like its changed the complexion of the community so its no longer friendly for the residents who live here," said Marolyn Roberts, speaking at a town hall forum held last spring attended by about 100 residents. "I think something we need to realize is there needs to be a balance to it all."

Fran Michaud, who has lived in Yountville since 1985, said when the town conducted a community survey almost a decade ago, Michaud complained that the town was overrun with pricey restaurants and motels. There were hardly any eateries that residents, especially lower-income seniors ,could afford.

Since then, Michaud said she's only seen more tourist-oriented businesses move into town. The only eatery she could afford — the Diner, which she said served "the best" breakfasts — is long gone. The Diner was replaced by the Wine Garden, and French Laundry chef Thomas Keller is preparing to open a new restaurant, Ad Hoc, on the site.

Now Michaud and others are bracing for the next wave of hotels and restaurants. Michaud is among dozens of residents in Gateway Mobile Park who will be inconvenienced by the 38-unit expansion of George Altamura's Yountville Inn, which will take the space now occupied by the park's swimming pool, laundry facility and clubhouse, which will get rebuilt elsewhere.

"In the time I've lived here we've gone from being a quiet unknown little town to a tourist attraction. I avoid going into town on the weekends because of all the activity and all the tourists are there. Either I stay home or leave town," Michaud said.

Good times ahead

Other residents have long seen the tourist influx as a boon for Yountville and its coffers.

"I walk my dog and the tourists tell me you're so lucky to live here," said Carol Fink, a 62-year-old retired psychiatric nurse, at the town hall meeting. "I too wish we had a cheaper hamburger (joint), but we have a beautiful community because without the tourists Yountville wouldn't be what it is.

"Where would we be without them? That's where we get money we have for this new community center, and the money to build a new pool at the Veterans Home. All these extras we wouldn't have if not for the TOT (Transient Occupancy Tax) money," she said. "Thank God I can drive to Napa if I need caulking or something. But I'm mobile. I can get in the car and go somewhere."

Six on the way

The six imminent projects are sure to draw more visitors to the "village."

Those that already have the green light to build are:

* The Bardessano project at the corner of Yount Street and Finnell Road, a 62-unit inn with paths along a stretch of Hopper Creek. Builders recently obtained a permit to start leveling the site.

* The Villagio Spa Suite project at 6495 Washington Street, to include a two-story, 10,000-square-foot spa facility; a detached two-story, 2,000-square-foot retail/office building; and a 32 space parking lot.

* An expansion of Yountville Inn on Washington Street, across from Veterans Memorial Park, to include a 38-unit expansion and connecting pathways along Hopper Creek; and relocation of the Gateway Mobile Home Park pool, clubhouse, and laundry facility.

Those taking their final step toward council approval (approval of the master development plan) are:

* Castello-Sogno Project at 6774 Washington St. to include a 20-unit inn; four housing units; rear parking area; some commercial use and pedestrian-bicycle pathways.

* Community Center Project at the intersection of Yount and Washington streets, to include a library; recreational space; town square; sheriff's substation; changes to existing community hall; storage structures; and a parking lot.

* Gherardi Place at 1901 Finnell Road to include four duplexes and three single-family dwellings.

Tiernan said so far it appears as though the projects are progressing at different enough paces that their construction will be staggered.

""The way it's played out the projects haven't come in all at once," said Tiernan, who noted the council can mandate construction timelines. "That's not to say there won't be any overlapping construction."

As of Friday, Tiernan said only the Bardessano builders had pulled a building permit.

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Acting Mayor Cynthia Saucerman said she expects the town council to keep a close watch over all the project's construction to ensure it's "a clean, quiet, and orderly transition."

"There's going to be a lot of construction and I perceive that as a big deal. We need to make sure these huge projects in a tiny little town have the least impact possible on neighboring businesses and residents," Saucerman said. "And we need to make sure the developer complies with all the mitigation measures to keep the dust and noise down and manage traffic."

Uncertain future

After the six projects get built, there are only a handful of substantial developable lots that remain. Discussion about their destiny is already underway, Tiernan said.

Proposals so far include a 20-unit Aloysius Inn across from the famed French Laundry, to be built by the restaurateur Thomas Keller. Residential developments will likely replace the vineyard management company and fencing business now occupying the two-acre lot on the Knight family's property at Yountville Cross Road and Stags View Lane.

But town leaders say a much bigger challenge lies beyond the construction phase.

Once the development spike is over, Yountville will see its revenues drop, steeply and permanently. The surge in developer fees fueled by the building boom recently fed an array of town funds that pay for public safety and the long-term upkeep of town sewers and parks.

"Probably in the next four to five years, we'll see everything built out, and we'll be looking at a defined revenue stream from our TOT and sales tax. That will become the bulk of our general fund and we'll need to get creative managing our finances so that we can continue to supply all the current amenities to our residents," Mayor Saucerman said. "Our revenue stream will be flat and we won't be able to sometimes count on an extra million dollars coming in from a new hotel."

Councilman John Dunbar said the new financial scenario for Yountville will probably involve a combination of cost savings and drumming up more revenue.

"Already as a council we've started to work to get a grip on our administration costs. The costs of running the town are pretty high and we want to make sure we're keeping those costs in check and spending our dollars the right way," Dunbar said, adding that being able to live up to a five-year $16.8 million capital improvement plan is a priority. The plan includes hundreds of maintenance and improvement projects from wastewater treatment plant upgrades to a town hall remodel to flood control of Hopper Creek.

In light of the impending drop of Yountville's revenue stream, some, including mayoral candidate Renate Halliday questioned the wisdom of the town embarking on building an $8 million community center.

"The way the whole thing (the community center) started was Yountville was rolling in money in the '90s and the council hired a consultant to find out what was on people's wish lists," Halliday said. "But there are some aspects about it that are controversial, like do we need a two-story gym? What is the future role of libraries? And does the town want to incur debt to build this?"

At present, it's unclear whether or not the town will have to borrow money to build the center. The answer depends on whether the council decides to scrap some of the more expensive features on the current community center blueprint.

Regardless of whether the current architectural plan, or a slightly downscaled version, gets built, Councilman Bill Dutton expressed confidence the center "will be a huge benefit to the town."

"We're basically a tourist attraction town. Our new inns and everything are invigorating the town itself," Dutton said. "I think a community center is going to create a true center of town when it gets there. And I think a lot of people will be quite envious of our little town."

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