As Andy Warhol once said, “I think having land and not ruining it is the most beautiful art that anybody could ever want to own.” I shot into this world a city girl, from the outskirts of Washington D.C. As an adult I wanted bigger, better, more, so I graduated to larger cities, Tampa Bay, New York City and Los Angeles, before surprising family and friends when I made Napa Valley my forever home 10 years ago. There are countless differences when it comes to city versus country living, but as unrest around the primary election in June still swings, I’m most interested in what it means to “have a voice” in small-town USA, in contrast to big cities.
I lived in LA during the first election of Barack Obama. The ground swell around polling places at the time, it was something to see. Big cities, by their very nature, induce swarming crowds, encourage protests, and beg people to draw and cross picket lines. In Los Angeles, more than 500,000 people marched for women’s rights in 2017, a number that rose to 3 million nationwide, according to Fortune magazine. Despite thick crowds (and traffic) I showed up, took stands, and stood in favor and against many movements, but often wondered if my “voice” could ever really be heard.
In Napa Valley, there is no question. Whether it’s rumblings around the contentiously debated Measure C, unrest over the potential proliferation of pot shops, or the crowning of a wine varietal titan, votes matter. Voices count here.
In 2015, a small collective of concerned citizens banded together to form Napa Vision 2050 to, as the group’s website declares: “Protect the quality of life for Napa County’s citizens and the rich biodiversity of our natural environment.” In three years time, the group has grown and acted as a major force behind Measure C (curb hillside growth) and D (ban heliports). Vision 2050 relayed growth stats, canvassed neighborhoods, led peaceful protests, and had a never-flailing presence at city council meetings to ensure community members voices would be heard. Meanwhile, other local organizations including the Napa Valley Vintners and Grape Growers associations stood against Measure C and waged an equally, if not more aggressive campaign, to stop the measure (which the groups saw as ‘anti-ag’) from passing. Regardless of where one stood, townsfolk raised not only voices but awareness. At the time of this writing, those who “voiced” also voted. One week after the June 5 election the measure remained in limbo. What was once a 35-vote lead for those in favor, turned into a 135-vote lead for the opposition
Two and a half weeks post-election, proponents of “Yes on C” conceded, trailing by a mere 2 percent, with 95 percent of the votes counted. I suspect this duel has only just begun. Measure D was passed.
Voices continue to roar over resort development including debates around a proposed Marriot-branded hotel and winery, which if approved could bring a new 250-room resort to south Napa. Concerns mount over the lack of affordable housing for the hundreds of workers such a resort could demand. Meanwhile, the Archer Hotel in downtown opened its doors (and roof) in April adding 183 rooms to the downtown footprint.
Mega development in Calistoga continues with the Silver Rose and Four Seasons projects plowing forward despite opposition (and appalled voices) from townies, some who fear the very fabric of Calistoga is in peril, right along with the already defunct roadways. I witnessed townsfolk railing against those projects (which were ultimately brought to ballot and approved) during a public forum hosted by the John Merchant family (owners of the Indian Springs Resort) in May. The family invited the community to learn about their proposed development plan for the Veranda Resort. More than 100 were in attendance to protest and support the project, which could include a 170-room hotel, a 396-space parking structure, employee housing, proposed walkway and emergency road, and a one-acre public garden for communal events like live music, dances, theater and a seasonal ice rink.
The crowd was split between those who embraced the plan and applauded the Merchants as good neighbors, employers and stewards of the land, and those against. While no two people held the same viewpoint, I observed rippling appreciation to the Merchants for opening up such a discussion to the public. Some noted no such opportunity was afforded relative to the Four Seasons and Silver Rose development.
As for this scribe, I assess each plan with a simple benchmark. Will it enrich our town and bring something of value to its dwellers? I may not have “control” over what happens, but I can rest knowing—I do have a voice.
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