David Heitzman is among those who have found Circle Oaks to their liking, right down to the circular, quarter-acre lots featured in the rural community’s name.
Circle Oaks has about 179 homes in oak-covered hills a nine-mile drive northeast of the city of Napa. Napans traveling on Monticello Road to Lake Berryessa pass the Circle Oaks entrance along the way, though the trees and steep terrain block views from the road of what lies beyond.
Napa County granted approval for Circle Oaks 50 years ago, making 2014 an anniversary of sorts. The community has gained a high profile in recent months because many of its residents have opposed the adjacent, proposed Walt Ranch vineyard project. Usually, though, Circle Oaks is out of the spotlight.
From the beginning, it’s been clear that the hidden world of Circle Oaks isn’t for everybody.
“This is the subdivision for particular people who prefer to live in seclusion away from the resort crowds,” said a promotional brochure from the community’s early days.
Heitzman built a house in Circle Oaks 29 years ago as a temporary measure, with the idea of selling it and moving to the city of Napa. He and his wife still live there. They found a niche in Circle Oaks.
“People stay a year or two, or they stay for 30,” Heitzman said.
Many a Circle Oaks resident talks about the peace and quiet to be found there. Circle Oaks may be only nine miles from the city of Napa, but the two locations are separated by the imposing, rocky wall of Mount George and other mountains. The road linking the subdivision and city is steep and winding.
The types of homes at Circle Oaks vary. The first was built in 1965 and the majority in the 1980s and 1990s. Some are modest homes of about 1,300 square feet, other more than 2,000 square feet. Sale prices in recent months ranged from about $260,000 to $530,000, records show.
Heitzman works out of his home making guitars, while his wife works in San Francisco and must make the long commute. Heitzman said they love living in Circle Oaks.
He recently walked out on his back deck amid the oak woodlands that surround his house.
“The biggest noise we hear is the birds,” he said.
Yet, he pointed out, the country living at Circle Oaks comes with such amenities as community water and wastewater systems and fire hydrants. The neighborhood has common areas in between the circular lots maintained by a homeowners association.
Heitzman estimates his custom home is probably worth $500,000.
“What can you buy in Napa for $500,000?” Heitzman said. “I couldn’t buy this. I couldn’t buy anything close to this.”
Karl and Martha Schmitt moved to Circle Oaks a few months ago and paid about $500,000 for their home. At one point, they lived in Chicago. Circle Oaks has a different kind of night life.
“At night, you can hear the coyotes,” Karl Schmitt said.
They liked Chicago, but also like the change to rural life. People in Circle Oaks respect boundaries, Karl Schmitt said. Crowded Chicago has no boundaries and you can hear what your neighbors are doing, he said.
Karl Schmitt works out of the house as a psychologist. When he drives to the city of Napa for whatever reason, he deals with that winding road with its 20-mile-per-hour curves. He’s not complaining.
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“It makes you take your time,” he said. “It forces you to decompress.”
Lisa Hirayama has lived in Circle Oaks for more than 14 years.
“You can actually see the stars here at night,” Hirayama said. “There’s no light. It’s amazing; the sky is just lit up.”
Her husband is a fire battalion chief in El Cerrito. He works shifts of two days on and four days off, so that helps with the commute.
They have two children attending Vintage High School in Napa. Hirayama has plenty of drives to make between Circle Oaks and Napa for various school events. Sometimes on those drives, the thought of living in town might pop into her mind.
“Sometimes when you’re driving late at night, maybe,” she said, but added the thought disappears once she arrives home in Circle Oaks.
The hilly terrain of Circle Oaks certainly helps for fitness. It is a world of steep streets, steep steps leading to front doors, steep driveways. A group of a couple dozen homes sits in a relatively flat area that Heitzman calls “the village.”
Among the streets in Circle Oaks is County Club Lane, even though Heitzman noted there is no country club in the community. It’s a name that hints at what could have been. Circle Oaks came about in 1964, a time when people were thinking big about rural eastern Napa County.
In the late 1950s, the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation had built Monticello Dam to form Lake Berryessa, which has fingers reaching about six miles north of Circle Oaks. The reservoir has 165 miles of shoreline and holds 1.6 million acre-feet of water (one acre-foot is about 326,000 gallons).
That’s big, but not nearly big enough for California at the time. In 1964, the state Department of Water Resources proposed replacing 304-foot-tall Monticello Dam with a 590-foot-tall dam, creating a Lake Berryessa that would hold 14 million acre-feet of water. The lake would store water imported from the Eel River basin.
This monster Berryessa-on-steroids is described in the state Department of Water Resources North Coastal Area Investigation report from September 1964. It would have brought Lake Berryessa, with all of its boating and recreational opportunities, even closer to Circle Oaks.
Circle Oaks developers had big plans, too. They wanted to build an 18-hole golf course, an air strip, a shopping area and a central lake covering 80 to 100 acres, as well as a small lake at the subdivision entrance. None of that came to pass.
“When completed, this unique development will combine a beautiful country club atmosphere with unlimited natural recreational facilities, and at prices so low as to attract families of moderate income,” said a promotional brochure from the time.
As for those circular lots, the developers credited famed architect Frank Lloyd Wright with inventing the concept.
“Following the ideas of Mr. Wright, each home site is circular and widely separated from its neighbor by a wilderness green belt, thus creating a large private estate for each residence,” the promotional brochure said.
Circle Oaks is the type of development that is unlikely to be replicated in Napa County anytime soon. County Planning, Building and Environmental Services Director David Morrison said building another Circle Oaks could mean making General Plan changes and holding a vote.
Measure J, passed in 1990, prohibits changes in Napa County rural agricultural and open space designations unless approved by a vote of the people. Voters in 2008 extended the protections for 50 years through Measure P.
Morrison also said that creating another Circle Oaks would mean doing an extensive environmental impact report. The environmental report for the proposed, adjacent Walt Ranch vineyards is more than 1,500 pages, counting the appendices.
Napa County has other rural communities, such as Berryessa Highlands. Each has its own flavor and characteristics. For Circle Oaks, those circular lots and oak-covered greenbelts remain a distinguishing feature after 50 years.