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Healdsburg’s growing pains



One of the tradeoffs that comes with being a popular wine destination region is development. It’s as unstoppable as the seasons, but unlike the coming of Spring, not everyone likes it.

Healdsburg, as everyone knows who’s been there or just read about it, has become the quintessentially quaint wine town in California. It’s smaller and more intimate than Napa, bigger and more interesting than Los Olivos, and as for Sonoma town, well, with all due respect, Sonoma lost the battle to Healdsburg years ago for sheer glam.

I’ve been going to Healdsburg for well more than 25 years and even back then, there were folks around who complained it was getting too big. They’d recall the good old days when the hardware store had sawdust on the floor. Nowadays, of course, Healdsburg is rich and boutique-y, with fabulous restaurants, great hotels and wine country tchotchke shops where you can drop $1,000 on a vase (but don’t drop the vase!).

It’s all too much, apparently, for some locals, who have formed a group trying to slow down development, if not outright stop it. The Santa Rosa Press Democrat on Monday reported that the group, Healdsburg Citizens for Sustainable Solutions, recently sent out a voter survey they claimed supported their anti-growth stance.

This is a tough position for elected officials to be in. On the one hand, they want to be responsive to local residents’ conerns—and they themselves may feel that Healdsburg is getting a little too crowded. On the other hand, the tax dollars that development brings in do magical things for school districts, road repairs and other government functions. So what’s a City Councilmember to do?

I myself enjoy visiting Healdsburg. I like to stroll the main streets around the Square, browsing the shops and galleries, although I must admit I don’t buy too much. I like to grab a sandwich and cappuccino at the Oakville Grocery, and duck into the wine shops and see all the labels. I can see where some people might be bothered by the proliferation of hotels and the inevitable tourists they bring, with increased traffic and all the other nuisances that popular destinations attract. That doesn’t bother me—but then, I don’t live there. So I’m not weighing in on this particular matter; the last thing Healdsburg needs is for outsiders to be telling them what to do!

We’ve seen these sorts of fights for years in other wine regions. A few years ago there was the brouhaha down in the Santa Ynez Valley over Larner Winery’s plans to host special events on their property, a plan that was fiercely and successfully opposed by locals in a NIMBY-esque display of power. We’ve seen similar fights in Knights Valley, and the controversy over the Napa Valley Wine Train certainly comes to mind. I’m sure there are other squabbles I’m just not remembering right now or was never aware of to begin with.

The challenge in all these things is to find balance. We see this search for equilibrium going on now in San Francisco. That city rightfully is proud of itself for being the urban hub of high tech, which brings in so much money and is redefining entire neighborhoods. But San Franciscans also worry that all that tech money is pushing out its artists, musicians, secretaries, janitors, cab drivers and others who can’t afford the high cost of living. Politicians, whose jobs entail making laws about these things, live on the razor’s edge of this conundrum. I wish the Healdsburg City Council wisdom in making its decisions.

  1. This group in Healdsburg does not represent the majority, or even a lot of local residents, but they are extremely vocal. They were encouraged by their efforts to stop the development at Saggio Hills, which, while unsuccessful, did delay the development until it came up against the Global Financial Crisis and hasn’t happened to date. Most locals feel that they are more destructive than helpful, suing when the majority of people have agreed on certain developments. The Healdsburg local government is very conscientious, does an excellent job of representing the will of the majority of residents, and growth in Healdsburg in actual numbers has been very small over the last 20 years…there are approximately 11,500 people today, a good number. Much has been written on this subject with little credit given to this opposition group, Citizens for Sustainable Growth.

  2. Julie St. John says:

    I concur with Judi. And I will add this: I have lived in Healdsburg for over 25 years, was born here-raised in Geyserville. I have seen the town go through the big change from Aggie town to Tourist town and I believe in our town council and planning commission and their goals and vision. They have done the right thing and will continue to do the right thing for the majority of our citizens-there is always someone who is not happy with the direction of a town. We have a plethora of great restaurants, wineries, shops. It is truly a great place to live and a great place to visit.

  3. Steve Goldman says:


  4. For years Calistoga has promoted itself as “Up the road, down to earth” to differentiate itself from the glitz of Yountville and St Helena. But for how much longer? Currently there is a substantial expansion underway of one of the older resorts downtown. Most of us locals were OK with that because this is in line with the General Plan which called for development to be in the core of the city, to encourage visitors to park their cars and walk to restaurants and shops. However, two new resorts were recently approved for development right at the city limits–one on the Silverado Trail, the other on a hillside above Highway 29. Both were controversial for their size, and for impacts on traffic, water resources, and wastewater capacity. Both were challenged with referendums, with the developers spending lots of money to present their side. In both cases the resorts received voter approval. The one on the hillside required a zoning change from hillside rural residential–it will be 144 units, with full spa, restaurant, and wedding facilities. The owner is none other than Jaqui Safra, owner of Spring Mountain Winery. In total the resort developments will add something like 365 units over the next few years, some of which reportedly will go for $1,000 per night. Many in Calistoga like the small town character with an attractive mix of tourists, working residents, many of them hispanic vineyard workers, and many retirees. But most of the business community favored a future that will look more like Healdsburg.

  5. I live on the Healdsburg square, sell wine there , and make wine one block away. It’s lovely, and with the exception of parking issues, functions very nicely.
    What does bite the big one is these so called advocacy groups extracting hundreds of thousands of dollars from the people who ( having gone thru the appropriate process) are trying to build on their properties.
    This idea that you can regulate the present into your idealized version of the past (and make money doing it) is a sham.

  6. I lived in Calistoga for five years and part of its attraction is the ability to walk downtown. The real problem with Napa/Calistoga is, though, the fact that there is no real “shopping” for a resident. I found I had to go to Sonoma to find a price that I could afford.
    I am also sure that no one remembers when Healdsburg was filled with arty little shops, diners and antique sellers. It was fun to go there and do some tastings in the few wineries that were outside the city limits……now the town is a bore for bores (sorry Steve)…..

  7. Cato, I get what you are saying. Not sure what era that you lived in Calistoga, but I would say that at the present we still have some cool diners, arty shops, and antique dealers, but the trend is towards tourist oriented shops. It seems like it wasn’t too long ago that St Helena had lots of shops to serve the locals. But shoe repair shops there have given way to shoe candy shops for high end visitors. Some of the residents of limited means who reside in Calistoga (e.g. vineyard workers and residents of the mobile home parks) were seduced to vote in favor of the resorts, but I think long term they are going to be forced out as rents increase, and mobile home parks come to be sites for time share condos.

    We have cultures in collision. A recent incident that says it all: an owner of a local art gallery, after clipping the door of a parked car, slamming the door onto the leg of the woman getting out of the car, raced off after telling the woman to “go back to Mexico.” The injured woman is a long time resident working in social services, the hit and runner was the President of the Rotary Club.

  8. I hope that Rotary guy was caught.

  9. Come on over to the Central Valley, Lodi is going through the same thing, only the early growing pains.

  10. Steve,

    I think you are absolutely right in saying that the challenge is to find balance. As I often say, change is uncomfortable but it forces you to think and evaluate. I got here as an intern in 1988, and immediately complained that you couldn’t get an espresso in this town, now I better be ready to ask for the RIGHT kind of espresso! It is still a great town to raise a family in, and I hope that the debate will be a healthy one.

  11. Bill Haydon says:

    “Fellow club members have been supportive of her, Youngman said. “They’ve been jewels.”

    Youngman alleges that Calistoga police mishandled her arrest. “They treated me horrible,” she said.”

    Yep, just another day in The Valley of the One Percent. That place makes the East Hamptons seem like a melting pot.

  12. Bill Haydon, you are a tiring bore! Your short time living in the Valley must have been a frightening experience for you to hold such animosity and ill will.

  13. Just a quick comment on antique stores…they are going away everywhere, due to the internet and a focus on modern design. What has replaced them are “re-purposing” shops, where things that are used but not necessarily very old are being sold…Healdsburg has at least 3-4 of these. Of course everyone is entitled to their idea of what is a good town and a pleasant atmosphere in which to live and/or work, but I have observed that most people who live in Healdsburg don’t just like it…they LOVE it.

  14. CAwinediva says:

    I read this with mixed feelings. Having just moved to Napa from SoCal, I’ve worked with Sonoma Valley wineries for over 20 years. I’ve seen the change everyone’s is worried about. And they should be.
    We’ve been visiting friends in Palm Springs for years, and the “new” PS, is really different from the old, and not in a good way.

    Hi end, hip hotels that bring big bucks from Gen X,Y or Z. But pricing to locals and loyalist out. A grand a night for a hotel room…..really??

    Powers that be really need to look at that double edge sword. But change is also necessary. But keep the values that people hold close as well.

  15. Judi, we used to call re-purposing shops “thrift stores.” I still do!

  16. Ron Saikowski says:

    Healdsburg made news recently before the rains. The town was running out of water and had only “days left” before their water source would be gone. The rains replenished the water supply for a while. This lack of water or better yet shortage of water is a huge reason to limit growth. If you do not have the water to give to your residents, you either limit growth or spend $$$$ in getting another water source.
    Healdsburg is a wonderful place, quaint with an outstanding town square. The people are very friendly. I do remember a fight earlier with the beer buses and beer limos bringing drunks into town. I hope that sort of transportation has been discouraged, being keg buses/limos. People were literally crawling out of those buses/limos, puking, then going on to drink. Not a pleasant situation. Hopefully that has been corrected during Taste of the Valley events.

  17. Steve and Bill (Haydon): regarding the Rotarian President mentioned above–this didn’t stand too well with the new chief of police, the recently retired chief of the U.C.Berkeley force now on duty in Calistoga. She was taken to jail in handcuffs–and yes, she made some remarks to the press in which she seemed to portray herself as the victim. My understanding is she recently plead guilty, was given probation and fined. And yes, Bill H. it is notable that you do seem to hold a level of animosity and ill will that leads you to take shots at people I personally know, and who do not deserve this.

  18. Here comes the Healdsburg Four Seasons!

  19. We love living in Healdsburg and as a winery owner with a tasting room right off the square we are very interested in how these debates play out. There was a recent city council meeting where the “concerned citizens” group presented their survey results and it was clear that it was nothing more than a few no-growth proponents trying to badger the council into doing what they want. They also are working very hard to stir up community members who have sincere concerns about growth, as we all do, with misinformation. When you hear things like “…why should we have to stop watering our lawns because you are allowing another hotel to go up?” you have to wonder at the real driving force behind the movement. The absurd comment list goes on but the reality is that the city council and planning commission have done an amazing job over the past several decades in growing Healdsburg in a way that built what we have today, which is one of the greatest destinations to visit AND a great place to live. This is a feat rarely duplicated and the work they are doing to grow and prosper while maintaining this great small town feel is incredibly difficult. Yes we are in a drought but if you have been attending these meetings you would know that Healdsburg has the water resources for the planned growth. If a proposal is put forward that does not meet the very strict requirements set forth by our Growth Management Ordinance it will never see the light of day. The planning commission and City council are very critical of proposed projects. Anyone suggesting they are rubber stamping new development has never tried to build something in Healdsburg.

    Alan Baker, Cartograph winery

  20. I have been coming to Healdsburg since the early ’80s to enjoy the wine and beauty of the vineyards. Now semi-retired, I finally bought a vacation home within walking distance of the Plaza about 3 years ago and visit a week or so every six weeks or so. After a lifetime of hard work, I have the luxury living in my two favorite cities: Healdsburg and Austin.

    I’m perfectly happy with the direction HB is going!


  1. Healdsburg’s growing pains | WINERY ORDINANCE - […] Steve Heimoff’s By Steve Heimoff Posted April 9, […]

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