ST. HELENA — Tony Holzhauer has been a consistent advocate for maintaining the small-town character of St. Helena and the Napa Valley as a whole.
His concern for the fragility and preservation of Napa County’s unique environment has been a central theme over his many years in St. Helena.
“I remembered, growing up as a kid in Tennessee, and I saw how quickly people can wreck an area,” he said. “They would go into a virgin forest and clear-cut for strip-mining and then just leave the logs. So I guess that’s how I became interested in the community and in preserving the Napa Valley.”
Holzhauer and his mother moved to California in 1948 when Holzhauer was 16. After high school, he attended college at Stanford University, enlisted in the Marines, and then worked as a broker for Merrill Lynch Investments in Southern California.
Then, in the early 1970s, while visiting Mary Novak’s new home at Spotsswoode in St. Helena, Holzhauer decided to move from Rancho Santa Fe to a Victorian house on 3 1/2 acres on Spring Street. He said what attracted him to Northern California was his memory of Tennessee. “I missed the woodlands and the mountains,” he said. “And I missed the seasons.”
In St. Helena, he worked as a real estate agent with Jim Warren and then later at Up Valley Associates with Chuck Dake. Eventually, he won a seat on the City Council. He was later appointed to the city’s Planning Commission and later served 11 years on the Napa County Planning Commission. He also served two years on the Napa County Grand Jury. During those years of public service, his perspective was often at odds, he said, with the desires of developers in the valley.
Yet, Holzhauer said, much of what still attracts people to the rural nature of the Napa Valley today are the same things that he and others were working to preserve.
“The problems St. Helena faces today aren’t very different than those we faced back when I was on the Planning Commission,” Holzhauer said. “Tourists. Traffic. The financial issues. But back then, the big question in St. Helena was how to keep development from taking over south of the bridge over Sulfur Creek.”
The expansion of Napa, too, was a concern as well as the explosive growth of wineries in the county. All these challenges were increasing the traffic Upvalley, according to Holzhauer and threatening the characteristics of the small towns of Yountville, St. Helena, and Calistoga.
Today in his retirement, Holzhauer said he doesn’t pretend to have the solutions to the pressing problems facing the Napa Valley. His hard work on planning commissions as they struggled with the issues of growth has given him a hard-won perspective about the future of the Napa Valley in the face of its growing tourist-centered economy.
“I don’t think we can ‘develop’ our way out of the problems facing the Napa Valley,” he said. “Every time you increase development, you increase the requirements and the costs to build and maintain roads and the associated infrastructures of sewer and water. You have to build new schools and increase other municipal services too.”
And then pretty soon, according to Holzhauer, you run out of the things that initially attracted the people to come here. “But in the meantime, you’ve created situations where you’re dealing with vacation homes owned by part-time residents who have their own priorities.” But since these part-timers don’t actually live in the community, Holzhauer added, the fabric of society within the town itself begins to fray.
Holzhauer’s interest in how the county’s communities end up dealing with these unique and individual challenges is now leading him down some unconventional pathways. These pathways — which have included awakening trips in the slums of India and the rural fields of Cambodia — eventually led him to a weekly trip to San Quentin State Prison where he sits in a round-table meeting with prisoners. It’s a part of a prisoner-initiated program called Restorative Justice.
The roundtable meets to get prisoners to focus on the needs of the victims and the community for closure. The inmates are prompted by the hope that they might one day return to society. Each prisoner talks about the offense that they have committed, and the round-table encourages the inmate to take responsibility for the offense and to seek ways to rectify the results of the crime.
“Many of these men are in for murder,” Holzhauer said. “You listen to their stories of their lives — what’s happened to them and how they ended up there — and it breaks your heart.”