By MATT BROWN
THE PRESS DEMOCRAT
Healdsburg residents are girding for another growth fight, this time over a potential hotel development that some say could spoil the small-town character of the popular wine tourism destination.
As plans emerged that Healdsburg is considering adding a new downtown hotel, a group of residents with a history of fighting development announced in an email its intention to “slow this runaway tourism train.”
The group, Healdsburg Citizens for Sustainable Solutions, may propose a ballot measure to limit hotel development, said co-founder Warren Watkins.
The group takes inspiration from Larry Barnett, the former mayor of Sonoma and former bed-and-breakfast owner who gathered enough signatures to put the question of hotel development to Sonoma voters in November.
Sonoma’s hotel-limitation measure would put a cap on new hotels or expansions involving more than 25 rooms, as long as the hotel occupancy rate remains under 80 percent.
“We support what Sonoma is doing,” Watkins said in an interview. “We think their hotel measure may be a good measure to follow. This is a tipping point. It’s about representing the quality of life for locals.”
A limit on hotels didn’t sit well with some council members, who warned of economic consequences.
Watkins’ group fought the Saggio Hills housing and luxury hotel development at the north edge of Healdsburg. In 2011, the group lost a long legal battle to block the project on environmental grounds, but the project has yet to break ground.
The latest fight centers around plans for a hotel just south of Healdsburg Plaza. The Kessler Collection, a Florida-based hotel company, reportedly has had closed-session meetings with the City Council about building what has been described as a 60- to 70-room, four- to five-story hotel.
The company also has had meetings with Sonoma officials to explore a potential hotel project there, but plans are on hold pending the city’s referendum on hotel development.
The Kessler Collection did not respond to a request for comment on a potential Healdsburg hotel-limitation measure.
A new hotel could generate hundreds of thousands of dollars in transient occupancy taxes, which go into the city’s general fund, Healdsburg Chamber of Commerce officials said. The city has two downtown hotels, The Healdsburg Hotel and h2hotel, as well as a handful of motels, inns and B&Bs. On busy weekends when rooms are full, visitors must stay in neighboring communities.
Chamber Executive Director Carla Howell said she wasn’t sure if Healdsburg needs additional hotel rooms, but doesn’t think a ballot measure to limit hotel growth is appropriate.
“I have concerns about any ballot measure that limits business. Doing something like that would be extremely disruptive to this tight-knit community,” she said.
Opponents of hotel growth say they have not yet committed to pushing a ballot measure and they want to see how the vote goes in Sonoma. Jim Winston, a Healdsburg slow-growth proponent, said limits should be placed on the size of new hotels.
“I think a large hotel is inappropriate, especially for the gateway of the city,” he said. “A 25-room hotel is more in scale with the small-town character of Healdsburg.”
Some council members are not in favor of a blanket limit on hotel development. Mayor Susan Jones said each hotel proposal should be evaluated and decided on individually.
“I don’t want to put a limit or a moratorium on hotels,” Jones said. “At the current time, the hotels we have can’t keep up with demand.”
She added that the council has not seen a specific proposal from The Kessler Collection.
Councilman Gary Plass said a measure to limit hotel growth could be economically crippling.
“What we have to do is continue to supply the tools to support strong economic growth,” he said. “I don’t think a ballot measure would be beneficial to the community.”
You can reach Staff Writer Matt Brown at 521-5206 or firstname.lastname@example.org.