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Calistoga City Council approves Fairgrounds agreement

Calistoga Mayor Donald Williams has been credited with shepherding the city's $2 million purchase of the Napa County Fairgrounds. | Photo by Clark James Mishler

The decades-long deliberation over the future of the Napa County Fairgrounds ended this week with an agreement by the Calistoga City Council to pay $2 million for the 71-acre property.

With that action a new chapter rife with optimism and uncertainty was launched, as the town contemplates what to do with the campus and how to pay for it.

Most of those who spoke at Tuesday’s council meeting said they were strongly in favor of completing the transaction, many telling of strong personal connections to the fair site.

“Some of my best memories are of walking with my family on the Fairgrounds,” said Emily Panovich-Bucchianeri, a lifelong resident. “Even my grandfather’s ashes are scattered there. So, yes, I think it would be really, really cool to revitalize it.”

The council voted without dissent to take possession of the Fairgrounds from the County of Napa, capping years of on-again, off-again negotiations with county supervisors.

As part of its action, the council directed the creation of a new city executive to oversee the initial revitalization efforts. The council also made reopening the RV park on the property a priority and ordered the hiring of landscape and maintenance contractors to assume immediate upkeep responsibilities.

While most residents who have been following the saga of the Fairgrounds appear to be strongly in favor of the purchase, questions still linger.

One relates to language in the contract that would limit future activities to only those uses that had been conducted in the past. A second area of concern is the contract’s ban on the city entering into leases of more than 25 years with any vendor or management company.

Councilman Kevin Eisenberg said he was troubled by both provisions, but believed the city should still move forward.

“This is not a perfect deal, but it is perhaps the best we could have gotten,” he said.

Eisenberg said he was less concerned about the link between future uses and historical activities because he believes the city can be “creative” to make things work. Regarding the 25-year lease, however, he said he is hopeful that the county would agree to renegotiate that prohibition if needed.

As part of the agreement, which the supervisors approved last month, the city will have 120 days to evaluate the property and conduct an environmental assessment. The city will have to waive all contingencies if the city moves ahead with the deal.

Jim Barnes, a former member of the council who was deeply involved with a prior round of negotiations with the supervisors, said the environmental liabilities could prove to be problematic.

“You buy a piece of distressed property like this, regardless of price, you are buying every liability,” he warned.

Resident Timothy Reilly raised the question of why the city’s negotiation team would have asked that the historic uses clause be included in the agreement, noting that Mayor Donald Williams said last week that the restriction came at the city’s request.

“It’s a fair question to ask how Calistoga citizens would benefit from this self-imposed restriction?” he asked the council. “To me it achieves nothing of any benefit to either the city or the county, but it clearly could be used to eliminate the wide range of uses and management approaches from even being discussed in the future.”

Councilman Scott Cooper attempted to ease concern over the historical use clause, saying that the contact would allow anything that is permissible under current zoning.

“There are scores and scores of ideas that will fit under existing zoning,” he said, adding that if there was something the city wanted to do that required rezoning, he believes that supervisors would be willing to discuss it.

“They want to see us succeed,” Cooper said.

Delivery of the Fairgrounds to the city represents a major political victory for Williams, who along with Cooper represented the city in the negotiations.

Twice in the past five years, the city has been close to closing a deal on the Fairgrounds.

In 2019, the council agreed to buy about half of the property from the county, but the COVID-19 economic shutdown forced both sides to withdraw from the agreement. Then last year, voters overwhelmingly rejected Measure E, which would have provided $27.5 million to buy the property and fund the rehabilitation. The proposal included a $16 million for purchase of the property.

Napa County Supervisor Anne Cottrell, whose district includes the city of Calistoga and who helped negotiate the current agreement, credited the other members of the Board of Supervisors for rethinking the transaction.

“From $16 million to $2 million was a remarkable shift,” she said.

Williams agreed, noting that both sides were able to look at the agreement as something other than a real estate deal.

“Both parties understand that this is less about the sale than about the stewardship of a property,” he said.