Anyone traveling through the Napa Valley, enjoying the rolling, vineyard-covered hillsides, owes thanks to Jim Hickey, a celebrated county and regional planner and conservationist who died peacefully December 6, at age 90.
Hickey devoted four decades, including two as Planning Director for Napa County (1970-1990), to developing, expanding, and maintaining the Napa County Agricultural Preserve. In 1968, a visionary Board of Supervisors and Planning Commission had declared agriculture to be the highest and best use of land in the county’s unincorporated areas, and limited urban development to urban areas. This had profound implications: it prevented land speculation, residential sprawl, and unchecked commercial development, and fostered the meteoric growth of Napa’s world-famous wine industry. As Planning Director, Hickey protected County lands in the Preserve, proposed a clear definition and standards for winery and vineyard development, implemented a plan to limit population growth, and maintained the scenic beauty of Napa’s rural landscapes. When he retired after a distinguished career, county residents passed Measure J, prohibiting County Supervisors from re-zoning agricultural land without support from a majority of voters, and Measure P, which extends this protection to 2058. This was a fitting tribute to a man who devoted his career to enhancing open space and preserving the natural environment.
Hickey left his mark on the entire San Francisco Bay region. Hired in 1964 as the first full-time regional Planning Director for the Association of Bay Area Governments (ABAG), he oversaw the development of the first Bay Area Regional Plan, 1970-1990, which offered an integrated approach to developing housing, transportation and transit, shorelines and waterways, and commercial growth. Its approval by nine county and 89 city governments was a monumental achievement.
Hickey had grown up in Saginaw, Michigan, where he was a star athlete at Saginaw High. He belonged to the football team that won the state championship in 1944, and captained the track team that won the first of five consecutive state championships in 1945. Hickey was inducted with teammates into the Saginaw County Sports Hall of Fame in 2003. His most significant high school experience, however, was seeing Virginia Rigby standing at a stoplight, and knowing immediately that he would marry her. Jim and Jini were sweethearts for 66 years and married for 63.
During World War II, Hickey enlisted in the U.S. Navy and served in the amphibious forces in the Pacific Theater. He traveled to Japan, Hong Kong, and Shanghai for mine-sweeping and support operations, an experience that sparked his life-long interest in Asian philosophy and art. After the war, he attended Michigan State University on the G.I. Bill, earning a degree in urban planning and landscape architecture.
He served as the first Planning Director for Oak Park, Michigan (1952-55), which received national recognition for its thoughtful and balanced development. Hickey worked briefly as chief administrative planner for Springfield-Clark County Regional Planning Commission in Ohio, then Township planner for Southfield, MI (1956), then Regional Planning Director for the Stark County Regional Planning Commission in Canton, Ohio (1958-64), before moving to California. He was a member of the American Planning Association for 64 years, and served on multiple committees of the American Society of Planning Officials and the American Institute of Planning. He was President of the California County Planning Directors Association (1974-75) and the Bay Area Planning Directors Association, and received numerous national, state, and local awards and commendations for his work.
After retiring from Napa County, Hickey consulted for the San Francisco Bay Area Open Space Agency, People for Open Space, and the Greenbelt Alliance, which honored him in 1983 for his efforts to protect Bay Area land resources. As President of the Board of the Napa County Land Trust, he helped it to develop the Connolly Ranch Agricultural and Environmental Education Center on Browns Valley Road in Napa. He spent ten years on the Board of the Jack L. Davies Agricultural Land Preservation Fund, as well (2002-2012).
Always active in the local community, from 2001-2002, he was Exalted Ruler of Napa Elks Lodge 832. From 2013 to 2015, he was President of The Meadows Residents’ Association. He volunteered for Seniors in Retirement and was a charter member of the Napa Valley Dixieland Jazz Society, which he led as President in 1993. He played the trumpet in his youth, listened to jazz every day, and sang all the time.
Jim and Jini enjoyed travel, took a number of river cruises around the United States, and visited Japan three times on study tours to learn about Buddhism. A man of deep integrity and inclusive spirituality, Hickey assembled many notebooks full of aphorisms and other wisdom gleaned from a lifetime of reading. A devoted husband and father, his final charge to his children was to enjoy life and cherish each other, because in the end, “only love remains.”
Hickey was predeceased by his wife Virginia, who died in 2010, as did their eldest son, Brian. Jim and Jini are survived by four children: Kathleen Casas (Otulio), Mark Hickey (Morna Calhoun), Janis Bishop (Bernie), and Wakoh Shannon Hickey; and by two granddaughters, Morgan Bacci (Mario) and Rachel Hickey. In the last years of his life, he enjoyed the companionship of a dear friend, C. Jean Brady, who died in January.
Concerned about the proliferation of tourism and traffic, and the encroachment of commercial development in the valley to which he devoted half his long life, he wrote, “I would like to see the (Ag Preserve) last. I know it will not, but the ideas it contains will endure. It is easy to destroy a plan, but an idea, once implanted, has roots no man can totally destroy.” At the heart of the plan is a vision of sustainable, balanced development. “The future of the Napa Valley can be as good as the people of Napa County want it to be — and no better,” he wrote. “If Napa can’t be saved, no place can.”
His family held a private cremation ceremony, and his ashes will be commingled with those of his wife. A celebration of his life will take place at Tulocay Cemetery in Napa on Saturday, March 17, at 1 p.m. In his honor, you are invited to donate to the Jack L. Davies Ag Fund, 811 Jefferson St., Napa, CA 94559, http://jldagfund.org/donate/.