By DEREK MOORE
THE PRESS DEMOCRAT
A new Sonoma organization describing itself as a broad citizens group opposed to a voter initiative to cap hotel development is getting its seed money from the developer whose controversial project could be blocked by the proposed ballot measure.
Nancy Simpson, the campaign coordinator for Protect Sonoma, which is being formed as a political action committee, said the ballot measure is not needed because the city already has adequate controls on hotel development. “This is not about any particular project,” Simpson said. “This is about Sonoma as a whole.”
She acknowledged, however, that Darius Anderson and his firm, Kenwood Investments, are paying her to manage the organization. Anderson is the developer of a proposed 59-room hotel near the city Plaza that has become a flashpoint in the debate over hotel development.
Neither Anderson nor Kenwood Investments was identified in last week’s press release announcing the new committee and its members, nor are they referenced on the group’s website or Facebook page.
“This is seed money to start a group that was starting anyway,” said Simpson, co-owner of a wine consulting business. She would not disclose her compensation or the amount of Anderson’s contribution.
Neither Anderson nor Bill Hooper, the investment firm’s president, returned calls seeking comment this week. Anderson also is a principal of Sonoma Media Investments, which owns The Press Democrat.
The proposed ballot measure would cap any new hotel, or expansion of an existing one, at 25 rooms unless the city’s hotel occupancy rate over the previous calendar year exceeded 80 percent. In 2012, the rate was just under 65 percent.
Simpson, who is Sonoma Valley’s designee to the county Landmarks Commission, said residents already have a say about what kind of hotel development they want in town. “We have a process in place that evaluates every project that comes into the city of Sonoma on a case-by-case basis. It’s based on the general plan,” she said.
Other critics have said the measure would stymie economic growth in Sonoma and result in a de facto ban on most hotels by setting an impossibly high occupancy standard.
Sonoma has never experienced an annualized occupancy rate of 80 percent, according to City Manager Carol Giovanatto. She cited a national travel survey that found only three U.S. locales have achieved that rate — San Francisco, New York City and Waikiki Beach.
The initiative effort is driven by a group called Preserving Sonoma, which is led by Larry Barnett, a former bed-and-breakfast owner and mayor of the city.
He said Wednesday that Preserving Sonoma has gathered about 600 signatures in support of the ballot measure. That’s about half the number of registered voters’ signatures needed to qualify the measure for a special election.
Barnett said disclosure that Kenwood Investments is assisting the opposition group “furthers my opinion that this really doesn’t represent a true grass-roots effort if it’s being funded by someone who is building a hotel that is outside the size and scale of what is being contemplated for our initiative.”
Barnett described Preserving Sonoma as a “100 percent genuine grass-roots group” that has no paid staff.
Campaign finance reports filed with the city show that Barnett loaned the group $20,000.
Barnett said the group also has taken in about $4,000 in donations, the largest of which — $1,000 — was contributed by Sonoma psychologist Barbara Sachs-Senn, reports show.
“Quote, progress happens, but I’d rather it be slow than too fast,” Sachs-Senn said. “It bothers me every time I want to cross the Plaza now and there’s so much traffic at times, especially between Whole Foods and the Bank of America.”
Barnett said Preserving Sonoma owes the San Francisco law firm of Shute, Mihaly and Weinberger about $35,000 for legal services related to the drafting of the proposed hotel ordinance.
The retired innkeeper and web designer said he expects he’ll have to loan the campaign an additional $15,000 of his own money to cover that expense.
“I hope to get some of that back, but if not, it’s for a good cause,” Barnett said.
Barnett said he has received no funding from Sonoma lodging owners.
“Not even a dollar,” he said.
Simpson said she submitted paperwork to the California Secretary of State to register Protect Sonoma, which is required before the committee can start to solicit donations. The group’s full name is Protect Sonoma: Sonomans for a Sustainable Future.
State campaign laws generally don’t require a developer to disclose his role with a PAC, other than if he or she were to contribute to the committee, according to Tara Stock, a spokeswoman for the Fair Political Practices Commission.
David McCuan, a political scientist at Sonoma State University, called Anderson’s involvement with the committee a potentially risky move that could alienate some Sonoma voters.
Anderson is a Sacramento lobbyist in addition to his work with Kenwood Investments.
“You don’t want there to be an appearance that you are directly funding a spokesperson or a campaign against something,” McCuan said.
But McCuan said Protect Sonoma gives Anderson a platform to mount an opposition campaign, which he said usually are successful in contested local ballot measures.
“It’s easier to block, than it is to propose and pass,” he said.
Barnett alleged that the Protect Sonoma name was deliberately selected by initiative opponents to create confusion on the issue.
Simpson denied that.
“I don’t think it’s that similar,” she said of the group’s name.
Protect Sonoma’s initial members are: Jeff Bundschu, Saul Gropman, Jean Arnold, Chip Allen, Gary Saperstein, Ethel and Gene Daly, Steve Burns, Gary Magnani, Mark Danon, Dana Adams, Lisa Cavalli, Tina Shone, Nancy Cline and Mike Marino.
You can reach Staff Writer Derek Moore at 521-5336 or firstname.lastname@example.org. On Twitter @deadline derek.