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City of Saint HelenaCandidate for City Council

Photo of Mary Koberstein

Mary Koberstein

1,421 votes (30.35%)Winning
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My Top 3 Priorities

  • Develop a Comprehensive Housing Plan and Strategy
  • Revise the Zoning Ordinance consistent with the General Plan and community objectives
  • Review and improve all facets of City Government interface with residents and business



Attorney, Self-Employed (2008–current)
Vice Chair, Planning Commission, St Helena, CA — Appointed position (2016–current)
Member, St Helena Planning Commission, St Helena CA — Appointed position (2015–current)
General Counsel, Centrum Properties, Inc., Chicago, Illinois (1998–2008)
Member, Zoning Board of Appeals, Evanston IL — Appointed position (2002–2007)
Director of Community Development; Senior Planner, Village of Wilmette, Illinois (1981–1998)
Principal Planner; Senior Planner, Lake County, Illinois (1978–1981)


Northwestern University, Chicago, Illinois JD, Law (1991)
University of Wisconsin, Madison, Wisconsin MS, Urban and Regional Planning (1977)
Smith College, Northampton, Massachusetts AB, Art (1975)

Community Activities

Director, Friends of the Strand Theatre; Rockland, Maine (2013–2014)
Trustee, Center for Maine Contemporary Art, Rockport, Maine (2010–2013)



What I’m Doing Today

My husband Richard Hansen and I moved to St Helena in 2014 from Maine, where we lived for nearly ten years after spending our working lives in the Chicago area.  We Live on Pinot Way with our golden retriever Francee.  Since July 2016, I have been the Vice Chair of the St Helena Planning Commission where I’ve been a Member since July 2015.  I continue to practice law as a sole practitioner licensed in Illinois, handling various matters from time to time for the real estate development company in Chicago where I served as General Counsel for ten years.




My choice to begin my higher education at Smith College in Northampton, Massachusetts is among my most significant life decisions.  My experience at Smith and the education I received broadened my perspective and strengthened my confidence in so many ways. After graduating from Smith, I returned home to Wisconsin and attended graduate school at the University of Wisconsin in Madison.  Ultimately this led me to Chicago and my first real job as a city planner.  In my mid-30s, after ten years working in planning, I decided to go to law school. For me, law school established the foundation of how I think, analyze, write and advocate.


Smith College, Northampton, Massachusetts, A.B., 1975, Art

The University of Wisconsin, Madison, Wisconsin, M.S. 1977, Urban & Regional Planning

Northwestern University Law School, Chicago, Illinois, J.D. cum laude, 1991;  Executive Editor, Northwestern University Law Review



My Experience as an Attorney

As an attorney at two Chicago firms, I specialized in land use and zoning and real estate transactions.  I represented numerous clients obtaining suburban and city zoning relief and other forms of development approvals.  After undertaking land use litigation on behalf of two clients in North Shore suburban Chicago communities, I structured successful settlement agreements that concluded the litigation.


I left private law firm practice to become the General Counsel at Centrum Properties, Inc., a dynamic and well-respected Chicago commercial and residential real estate development company with projects throughout metropolitan Chicago and in other states.  During my tenure, I negotiated, structured and documented acquisitions and dispositions, loans, equity and joint venture agreements, condominium declarations, and intricate reciprocal easement and operating agreements for complex mixed-use projects. Among our significant Chicago projects was the redevelopment of the thirty-one acre former Montgomery Ward Corporate Complex.  Working with a New York equity partner, Centrum renovated the former 1.25 million square foot Catalogue Building into a mixed use high tech, commercial, office and residential project that included market rate and affordable housing.  Centrum renovated the former Wards office headquarters into a residential condominium.  The remaining land and buildings were sold to other developers with covenants in place to ensure compliance with planned development, tax increment financing and affordable housing requirements.  Cityfront Plaza, a complex in the Streeterville neighborhood is among Centrum’s other significant mixed use projects.  Today Centrum is active in several projects in “transit oriented districts” in Chicago where zoning incentives go hand in hand with housing affordability and other requirements.


Sachnoff & Weaver, Ltd., Chicago, Illinois 1991-93, 1996–98, Partner and Associate, Real Estate Department

Lord, Bissell & Brook, Chicago, Illinois, 1993-1996, Associate, Real Estate Department

Centrum Properties, Inc., Chicago, Illinois, 1998 – 2008



My Work as a City Planner

I began my career in planning at a county planning agency where I became a project manger for the county’s comprehensive plan revision.  In Wilmette, as Director of Community Development, I directed Department activities in all matters relating to land use, building and zoning.  While in Wilmette, I oversaw a major revision of the Village zoning ordinance and served as an administrative liaison to the Board of Trustees, Zoning Board of Appeals, Plan Commission and Housing Commission.


Department of Planning, Zoning & Environmental Quality, Lake County, Illinois 1978-1981, Principal and Senior Planner. 

Department of Community Development, Village of Wilmette, Illinois, 1981-1988, Director of Community Development and Senior Planner




In addition to serving on the St. Helena Planning Commission, I was a member of the City of Evanston, Illinois Zoning Board of Appeals from 2002-2007.  While in Maine, I was a Director on the Board of the Friends of the Strand Theatre, Inc., Rockland, Maine, a non-profit corporation that we established to continue the operations of a restored art-house theatre.  I also served for three years as a Trustee on the Board of the Center for Maine Contemporary Art, in Rockport, Maine.    

Who supports this candidate?

Featured Endorsements

  • Editorial Board, St Helena Star, October 12, 2016

Individuals (1)

  • Sixty (60) residents as of 10-21 See

Political Beliefs

Position Papers

Why I Oppose Including the Proposed Low Medium Density Residential District in the General Plan


Synopsis of my positiion stated at a May, 2016 Planning Commission meeting, full text below or please see:


I oppose including the recently proposed Low-Medium Density Residential zoning district (“Low-Medium District) in the General Plan.  I do, however, support the recommendation that the Planning Commission undertake a comprehensive review of all zoning districts immediately after the General Plan is adopted.




The April 2016 version of the General Plan includes a newly proposed Low-Medium Density Residential zoning district (“Low-Medium District”).  At a Planning Commission study session on April 19, 2016, Staff characterized the Low-Medium District as “the most significant single land use change being proposed with the 2016 General Plan.”  Indeed, prior to the April, 2016 Plan, approximately 70% of the City’s residential land was mapped in the Medium Density District and has been for years.


This single proposed change re-designates approximately 60% of the Medium Density District as Low-Medium District.  The new Low-Medium District includes land that fronts on both sides of Main Street, north of the commercial area and in other blocks located within three blocks of Main Street.  Sound planning would normally dictate that we implement regulations that encourage greater – not lower - density in those locations, along with mixed use.


In April, 2016, I joined the rest of the Planning Commission in a unanimous recommendation that the proposed Low-Medium District be removed from the April 2016 Plan.  We reached this decision in part, based on the fact that this significant change had yet to be presented to and evaluated by the community.  In the long history of this General Plan, the Staff outline of the density range and mapping of the Low-Medium District was first presented to the City Council and included in the General Plan on September 8, 2015.  The potential ramifications of this large new district are many.  The Planning Commission did not want to derail scheduled adoption of the General Plan by injecting this significant, unvetted land use change in the General Plan this late in the game.  I strongly support that decision.


The Low-Medium District was proposed in part as a tool to maintain single family densities and also to “avoid the potential for as many as 1500 multiple family units being ‘squeezed’ into the City’s existing single family neighborhoods.”  My opposition to including the Low-Medium District in the General Plan is based on additional factors: (1) this immediate downzoning is not necessary because existing development regulations in the Medium Density District maintain single family density at current levels, effectively preventing the forecasted development of 16 du/acre multi-family dwelling projects; and (2) adoption of the proposed Low-Medium District creates internal inconsistencies between the Land Use Element and the Housing Element of the General Plan.


Existing Regulations


The proposed downzoning of a significant area of the City into the Low-Medium District is not necessary now to prevent apartment buildings up to 16 units per acre from being constructed in the Medium Density District:


·       Multiple family housing is not a permitted use in the Medium Density District other than on the recently designated Key Opportunity Sites.  The intent of the Medium Density District is to develop single family homes.


·       Current regulations require single family homes to be constructed on lots at least 7,000 square feet in area.  This requirement equates to roughly 6 units per acre and is holding the permitted use in the district, single family homes, at the low end of the Medium Density District range.


·       The forecasted 16 dwelling units per acre fails to take into account several factors that affect development feasibility generally, including land assemblage time, feasibility and cost; demolition cost; lot consolidation and/or resubdivision; the cost of new construction; and our growth management system that limits the number of new residential permits issued each year.


Internal Inconsistency


The required elements of the General Plan must be internally consistent.  The Low-Medium District conflicts with several provisions of the Housing Element.


·       Vast areas on the west side of the City are proposed to be re-designated into the Low-Medium District.  The result is that this significant land use change will at least inhibit, and perhaps preclude development of a Housing Element program to encourage affordable housing in clusters of 4-6 units on infill parcels on the west side of town.  Beyond the west side, this across the board density reduction makes it more difficult for developers to create and for the City to respond to unique opportunities and creative projects that may arise on any particular parcel in the City.


·       The Low-Medium District is also inconsistent with goals and policies that promote work force housing specifically in the Medium Density and High Density districts.  It eliminates large areas of town as potential locations for such housing.


·       The Low-Medium District is inconsistent with the goal to “encourage higher density development where appropriate, mixed use development, second units and a variety of housing type throughout the community.”  This downzoning shrinks the amount of land that remains in the Medium Density District and tends to concentrate the locations of the Medium Density District and High Density District which are precisely where new housing opportunities can be created in the City under the Plan.


·       Under the Plan, the proposed Low-Medium District is excluded from the residential zoning districts where the City can “consider allowing higher density housing . . . as long as the development character is maintained, including lot widths, orientation to streets, building heights, on site parking, traffic, noise among other considerations.”


The City might ultimately accept, reject or modify the Low-Medium District.  But the issue requires more study and there is ample time to do that following adoption of the General Plan.


Rather than adopt this single targeted change now, I agree that we should undertake a comprehensive review of zoning districts throughout the entire community.  There are other neighborhoods where density issues were brought to the attention of the Planning Commission. The General Plan includes a Mixed Use District that has great potential but the outline of this district is largely undefined.  A new approach to zoning along the Route 29 was suggested to the Planning Commission as a means to stimulate development in targeted areas and achieve multiple City objectives.  We should take this opportunity to conduct a comprehensive review of our zoning districts and the tools available to the City to encourage beneficial development in St. Helena.  From there, we can make appropriate revisions to our Zoning Ordinance.

It's The People's Business


Statement on improving resident participation in government.  Full text below, or see

Who’s In Charge Here?


As a member of the City Council, I will advocate for more direct and productive resident participation in City government.  The strange thing about the Brown Act is that while it is meant to foster open government and citizen participation, it too often stifles spontaneous discussion.  Our three minute public comment period is a serial monologue.  Input at public hearings is too constrained.  If the elected Council genuinely wants to be responsive to the views of the electors, it has to find a megaphone to allow those views to be heard.


As a starter, I favor the use of frequent Special Town Hall Meetings.  They seem to be a particularly useful forum to vet opinion on specific issues.


This past year the Council appointed an Ad Hoc Revenue Task Force to delve into revenue enhancement.  Many residents have the knowledge, skill and interest to dig into important City issues.  But some of us don’t want to be saddled with a multi-year meeting commitment or the public disclosure requirements that come with appointment to a permanent commission.  The task force format is well suited to research, conversation and consensus proposed by those of us who live here 24/7.  We should use it more often.


Taking a cue from “One Book, One Community”, I would like to explore a concept I’ve termed “One Issue, Ten Neighborhoods”[1].  Think of a series of ad hoc, open house, neighborhood meetings where we discuss and develop opinion on a singular issue or topic.  These meetings might be called from time to time throughout the City, on specified nights or during designated weeks.  The idea is to bring residents together in their neighborhoods to debate and discuss issues in a free and informal setting.  These ideas are then filtered up to the Council through neighborhood representatives, or individual Council members or other appointees who sit and listen at neighborhood meetings in some manner that doesn’t lead to a Brown Act “daisy chain” or “hub and spoke” meeting.


The bottom line is that we need to find a way to make residents’ voices heard while living within the limitations of the Brown Act. 

[1] I’m suggesting ten neighborhoods, but the ideal may be twelve, fourteen or more; whatever makes sense socially and geographically.

Business and Taxes


Responses to Questions, pre-debate Questionnaire of the St Helena Chamber of Commerce


  1. Why do you want to serve on St. Helena’s City Council and what do you hope to accomplish?


I decided to run for the City Council because I believe I can make a positive contribution to the establishment of City policies and bring an independent voice to decisions the Council makes.  I offer a fresh point of view that is unencumbered by past history or conflict of interest.  I have no allegiance or personal agenda other than to research and learn, ask questions, listen to and respect all sides and then work with my colleagues to reach sound decisions.  I realize there are special interest groups in town.  The bottom line for me is that notwithstanding anyone’s particular point of view, we all care about the future of St. Helena.  We shouldn’t marginalize input.  We should work together whenever and however we can.  Perhaps we can overcome some of our divisiveness if we can solve problems together.


The Council will have a lot on its plate over the next several years.  Much of what lies ahead relates to land use and development, and in many ways will set the future course of St. Helena.  Based on my Planning Commission service, and years of experience as a city planner, land use and real estate attorney, and general counsel to a private real estate development company, I am well grounded in the subject area and bring a well-rounded perspective to these significant issues.


For full text of response see website:


  1. Do you support the City’s proposed sales tax initiative? Why or why not?


I support the tax initiative.  The City needs the funds; at least in the short term until other revenue sources are evaluated, enacted and come on line.  If I have a concern, it is that in adopting Measure D as a general tax with no sunset clause and no specific allocation of revenues, I fear that the Council may have left money on the table, or failed to fully satisfy resident concerns over transparency and financial accountability.  See website:



  1. St. Helena residents expect a high level of service from their City.  We want nice parks and good recreation programs, a great library, to count on our police force and fire department, a safe and pleasant Main Street and sufficient infrastructure.  However, the City has inadequate revenues to deliver these services at the level we want.  While there have been financial missteps at the City level, it is also true that St. Helena has missed out on tourism revenue for years by not adopting more tourist friendly business practices.  Do you believe that economic sustainability in St. Helena can be enhanced by low-impact, high-end tourism?  What are your suggestions to leverage tourism while maintaining our quality of life?   


No doubt, residents are concerned about the state of our infrastructure.  The picture regarding satisfaction with services may not be quite as bad as painted.  Polling in early 2016 actually showed that residents are largely satisfied with the current level of service that we receive from our police and fire departments, recreation department and the library.


I believe that we need to manage tourism to our benefit.  But committing to “high-end” and “tourist-friendly” practices as an out of the box solution without sufficient analysis is not necessarily the best approach.  We need to weigh the costs and benefits of specific proposed projects and uses and manage tourism to the greatest benefit of the community.  I will use the specific example of hotel development to indicate how I would try to leverage tourism and maintain our quality of life.


On the issue of hotel development, the City is largely in a reactive mode, considering, or poised to consider, multiple options without a community standard in place.  We are waiting for this or that project to be proposed.  We are about to evaluate third-party proposals for the development of City property.  Whether or not, where and what kind of hotels are developed or redeveloped in St. Helena is within the control of the City.  If we simply react, we signal that we are somewhat desperate and open to anything.


On the issue of community benefits, I hear over and over again that we shouldn’t ask developers to provide housing, for example, or other community benefits because those demands will scare developers away.  In my experience, what actually scares developers is when a city fails to articulate its standards and the process of entitlement approvals disintegrates into a guessing game.  If we set specific standards, developers can and will pencil them in and figure out a way to make their financially attractive projects work.  In my view, in a town as attractive as St. Helena, and with all we have to offer, we should not hesitate to articulate what we want.


To do this, I would have the City engage consultants and brokers knowledgeable in hotel development to make an objective determination of the range of hotel operations (e.g. luxury, resort, boutique, renovation, repurposed buildings) that are economically viable in St. Helena.  Assuming viable options exist and taking into account their characteristics and needs, this working group should then outline one or more pro forma projects that have the greatest overall benefit for the City.  We determine overall benefit taking into consideration: (i) project needs and costs, such as location, keys, parcel size, footprint, water, impact on other hotel operations, employees, traffic, noise and other environmental impacts; considered in light of (ii) benefits to the City, such as property and TOT tax revenue, work force housing, ancillary community facilities (physical space, cultural, educational or other opportunities), what impact, if any, can we expect on local business if we move away from a day-tripper tourist experience, other contributions to the City, and design that befits community character.


These pro forma projects might take the form of new construction, renovation or expansion and redevelopment of existing hotel space, conversion of existing buildings or a combination of these options.  We devise zoning and other regulations and incentives consistent with the standard.  And, we retain a commercial broker to market our vision to developers and hotel operators, with the expectation that by doing so, we will realize our community objectives.


  1. In order to provide the City with adequate revenues for the things we want, and in addition to recommending increasing the sales tax, the City’s Ad Hoc Revenue Source Task Force Report recommended the City consider, among other items, implementation of a real estate property tax, raising TOT by increasing the number of hotel rooms and developing a long range economic development plan.   What are your positions on these additional revenue sources?


See website:



  1. Revenue Sources


I would not shut the door on any revenue source until it has been fully analyzed.  See website:



  1. St. Helena is the heart of the wine industry, which is the economic driver of the Valley.  St. Helena is home to a mix of some of the most historic and the finest family owned small wineries in the Valley.  Could you briefly outline your level of support for wineries and their related activities?  How do you feel about new wineries being approved as well as existing wineries expanding their uses?


We need smart tourism.  See website:


  1. The idea that City government should somehow guide the marketplace seems to go against the very idea of our American free market and is not necessarily considered “business friendly”.  However, residents have made it clear that a diverse downtown is what they want.  Can you give us your viewpoints of City government’s role in balancing market forces against the desires of residents to determine the future of St. Helena relative to business, tourism and a vibrant economy necessary for sustaining our town?


The reality is that the City already guides the free market through its zoning power.  We can’t sit back and hope that market forces will do the rest.  We need a proactive approach to attracting and sustaining a vibrant, diverse mix of retail and service businesses in St. Helena.


We need to recognize the factors at work that led to the disappearance of some of the “local businesses” our residents valued.  First, prevailing commercial rents are at a point where the shoe repair shop can’t make a go of it financially on Main Street.  The increasing number of second homes in St. Helena appears to be diluting local demand for goods and services.  Some residents shop outside St. Helena, or online, perhaps for price, selection or just as a matter of convenience.


Not unlike a shopping center, to remain economically vibrant, our Main Street should contain a diverse mix of individual businesses which, taken together, complement and support each other.  There is a tipping point where too much of this or that dilutes the overall attraction of downtown.  Attracting quality businesses with the level of personal service we value involves an effort that matches the effort we’ve put into keeping out chain stores and formula business.  The City should wield the power it has to achieve these ends, through zoning and business regulation, development approvals, administrative reforms and creation of incentives.


How does this translate into government action?  Following are some examples.


As to existing businesses, to the extent we continue to utilize use permits, we need to facilitate the ability of business to move around town and to operate.  Portable use permits that operate within a defined area would enable an established local business like Sportago to move around the corner quickly and without incurring excessive fees.  Interpretation of the limitations of existing use permits and our code administration must be even-handed but should also be reasonable.  Had the limited “brewery” operation that Harvest Inn proposed been recognized for what it was - an ancillary use allowed under its existing permit - time and money would have been saved getting this use off the ground.


We need to be proactive and develop a plan to attract and bring new business into town; businesses that complement what we have and expand our range.  We should put together an offering memorandum for St. Helena business expansion, and engage a commercial leasing agent that knows our market characteristics and available space and understands community values.  Coupled with this, the City should evaluate or develop incentives that we can offer new business to attract them to locate in St. Helena.  Fast track approvals and license and fee abatements are some possible approaches.  We can’t actively control commercial rents.  But when we evaluate the proposed Mixed Use District, use of public land, and new construction, we should look for opportunities to create space for businesses that don’t generate sufficient revenues to pay prevailing rents on Main Street.  Maybe it is no longer possible.  But if we are serious about trying to maintain local serving businesses, it is something we ought to investigate.


The City should take a close look at our existing permit structure to see whether we can free up available space.  Because our use permits have historically run with the land, certain commercial spaces become designated as permanent “restaurant”, “jewelry store” or “clothing store” locations.  This minimizes options for marketing space when it does become available, leaving storefronts vacant and unavailable for occupancy by otherwise attractive businesses.


All of this need not necessarily require a new commission or a new administrative department or more staff.  We can begin with an ad hoc group of experienced, knowledgeable residents and local business people, and work from there.  We can build many of their recommended changes into the Zoning Ordinance revision; we have already scheduled staff to devote time to this endeavor following adoption of the General Plan.  We can work with outside consultants or brokers, keeping staff free to do other work and keeping long term administrative costs under control.


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