By DEREK MOORE
THE PRESS DEMOCRAT
As an autumn sun set over Sonoma, a chill crept through the city’s leafy Plaza, where hundreds gathered to savor one of the last farmers markets of the season.
The scene last week reflected a community content with itself. Or so it seemed.
Sonoma has been roiled by a controversial ballot measure that could make it exceedingly difficult, if not impossible, to build a new hotel in the city or expand a current one beyond 25 rooms.
More broadly, Measure B is viewed as a referendum on the city’s future.
“I don’t want Sonoma to be Yountville, where it’s hotels and tourists and nothing else,” Sonoma contractor Bob Baeyen said to friends who were seated on the grass, wine glasses in hand.
“But it’s already there! Look at the tasting rooms and real estate offices,” said Marsha Copeland, a massage therapist, as she gestured around her.
The pair ended the conversation amicably. But elsewhere, passions over Measure B have led people to storm out of public meetings, frayed longtime friendships and political alliances, sparked allegations of campaign shenanigans and fomented apocalyptic predictions of what will happen if the initiative passes or fails.
Sonoma voters will decide the issue in a special election Nov. 19, with absentee ballots scheduled to go out a week from Monday.
Sonoma, which has a long history of independence and ambivalence toward the world at large, again is confronting an identity crisis.
Is the city of 10,000 residents too welcoming to tourists? Or not enough? Would capping hotel rooms keep the city’s economy humming, or curb growth? Does the measure promote the city’s image of itself as genuine and historic? Or stuck in the past? Is the attempted end-around the city’s planning process a noble act of direct democracy? Or an abuse of the ballot box?
Such conundrums resonate well beyond the two square miles that encompass Sonoma. Almost all cities struggle to find the right balance between quality of life issues, such as traffic, and generating much-needed revenue, especially in an era of government shutdowns and a still-unfolding economic recovery.
“We have to decide if we want to remain a town, or if we want to become a city. Towns are where people live. Cities are where people make money,” retired San Francisco firefighter Dennis King, a longtime Sonoma resident, said as he strolled around the Plaza last week with his daughter and her 5-month-old son.
The Hotel Limitation Measure would cap new hotels or expansion of existing ones to 25 rooms unless Sonoma achieves an annual occupancy rate of 80 percent, which the city has never done. In 2012, the rate was just under 65 percent.
The city’s Planning Commission would have to determine that a large qualifying hotel project, defined in the initiative as more than 25 rooms, does not “adversely affect the historic, small-town character of Sonoma” prior to issuing a use permit, which is the city’s current policy. That approval could be appealed to the City Council, but under the new ordinance, would require a four-fifths’ vote for the project to go forward.
Larry Barnett, Measure B’s main proponent, said a super-majority is necessary “to ensure that political leaders are absolutely certain they want to take that step.”
Critics, however, view the measure as a de-facto ban on new hotels, saying the 80 percent threshhold is unacheivable and hotels under 25 rooms are not economically feasible. A city-commissioned report found that only three market areas achieved an occupancy rate above 80 percent in 2012: New York, San Francisco and Oahu.
Measure B backers dispute that finding, saying they found 12 other communities that have achieved that level of hotel occupancy. That includes Yountville, which did so in 1997-98 with an 80.3 percent rate.
No hotel projects are officially pending in Sonoma. The current debate was sparked by developer Darius Anderson’s proposal to build a 59-room luxury hotel on West Napa Street a half-block from the Plaza, on the site of the Sonoma Index-Tribune, which Anderson owns.
Anderson, who has a home just outside Sonoma city limits, is a Sacramento lobbyist and principal of Sonoma Media Investments, which owns The Press Democrat. He declined comment.
Anderson’s original proposal for Chateau Sonoma Hotel & Spa included two restaurants, a health club and spa, an event center and 2,800 square feet of retail space. He withdrew that proposal for revision, and said a new design would include the same number of rooms but a smaller physical footprint, with one restaurant and a smaller event center. The French theme was to be replaced by a design that celebrates Sonoma Valley writer Jack London.
The project obviously struck a nerve. But both Measure B campaigns have decided for political reasons to all but ignore it.
“Supporters of Measure B don’t want to talk about it because they don’t want people to think it’s about a single project. Opponents don’t want to talk about it because they realize Darius may not be the most popular person. So it stays quiet,” said Bill Blum, general manager and part owner of MacArthur Place Hotel & Spa and a vocal Measure B opponent.
MacArthur Place, which opened in 1998 with 33 rooms and has since expanded to 64 rooms, would never have been built had the amendments to the city’s General Plan as envisioned by Measure B been in effect.
Blum said Measure B paints a false portrait of Sonoma’s hotels and tourism industry. “We spend a lot of money at Friedman’s. We spend a fortune on air conditioning. We buy our bread at Basque Boulangerie.
“I don’t think people realize the amount of stimulus the tourism industry provides to all of our local businesses,” he said.
Blum’s stance on Measure B has strained his relationship with Barnett, who formerly owned a bed-and-breakfast in town and an Internet company that developed the website for MacArthur Place, as well as for a number of other hotels. Barnett also served on the City Council for 12 years, including two stints as mayor.
Blum said he was shocked when Barnett informed the City Council of his intentions in March without consulting the city’s hoteliers, who are universally opposed to Measure B.
“A lot of people feel betrayed by Larry,” Blum said.
Barnett said Blum “tends toward the dramatic,” and he contended that his stance should not have come as a surprise.
“I’ve always had a bias against big businesses or chains, or chain hotels, because they’ve never fit the mold of what I wanted the city to embrace. I’ve been consistent in that,” Barnett said.
Sonoma currently has two hotels affiliated with national chains: The Lodge at Sonoma Renaissance Resort & Spa, which, with 182 rooms, is the city’s largest hotel, and the Best Western Plus Sonoma Valley Inn, which has 80 rooms.
Barnett played a pivotal role in getting an urban growth boundary passed in Sonoma in 2000 when he was mayor. The measure’s goals included an emphasis on infill development and support for a “thriving downtown center,” and to protect the city’s quality of life by concentrating future growth largely within existing developed areas, “consistent with the availability of infrastructure and services.”
Barnett’s critics accuse him of undermining his own efforts of 13 years ago with his current campaign to get a cap on hotels, which they contend would encourage sprawl by pushing hotel development outside the city. He disagreed.
“If we were banning hotels altogether, it might be considered antithetical,” he said. “But a 25-room hotel is permitted without any changes in regulation at all. It can be an infill project just as easily as a 60-room hotel.”
He said Measure B also is necessary to counter an “army of professionals” that he said acts on behalf of developers and places the city at a competitive disadvantage in the planning process.
He said Measure B “is a way to make sure public interests get at least as much time and protection as private property owners get.”
That argument has not endeared Barnett to several members of the current council, including Mayor Ken Brown, who stormed out of a public forum on Measure B on Oct. 3 when the subject was addressed.
Brown, who declined comment last week, is among those who have expressed anger over the assertion that the city is rubber-stamping large development, or isn’t equipped to properly vet projects, and therefore voter intervention is required.
It’s a curious role-reversal for the mayor, who as a city councilman in 1999 helped spearhead a successful voter-led effort to kill a proposed 105-room resort on a hillside overlooking downtown. In a previous interview, Brown said there is a difference between a project of that size and location, and a 59-room hotel proposed downtown.
A narrow council majority gave Brown and Councilman Tom Rouse the authority to draft an argument against the measure in the ballot pamphlet.
After the vote, Barnett angrily informed the council that by taking a stand on Measure B they were fueling perceptions that they had “just approved a very big hotel that’s coming down the line.” He then marched from the room.
Days later, Barnett submitted an opinion piece to the Index-Tribune clarifying that he does not believe any members of the City Council to be corrupt.
The Preserving Sonoma Committee, which Barnett formed to advocate for Measure B, brought in $16,276 in cash contributions from July 1 through Oct. 6, including a $5,000 loan from Barnett. An additional $3,560 came in as non-monetary contributions, records show.
The committee brought in $6,226 from a September fundraiser. The largest individual donors were Sonoma attorney Leonard Tillem, Theresa Meeks and Marilyn Goode, who each contributed $1,000.
Healdsburg resident Warren Watkins, who heads a citizens group that opposes Saggio Hills, a resort development on the city’s northern edge, also pitched in $1,000, records show.
Barnett said he has loaned the committee a total of $25,000. He said he owes roughly $20,000 on an outstanding legal bill that now exceeds $40,000.
Protect Sonoma, the group opposing the measure, brought in $19,049 in cash contributions, plus an additional $12,074 in nonmonetary contributions, over the same period of time, records show.
The committee’s largest contributors included Norval Jasper ($6,000), California Wine Tours ($2,500) and Speedway Sonoma LLC ($1,000), as well as John Leahy and William Thornton, who each contributed $1,000.
The committee also has received a total of $30,571 in nonmonetary contributions this year from Chateau Sonoma Hotel Group LLC, records show.
Measure B is opposed by the Sonoma Valley Vintners and Growers Alliance, Sonoma Valley Visitors Bureau, Sonoma Valley Chamber of Commerce and North Bay Labor Council.
Barnett’s group is supported by Sonoma County Conservation Action.
The Measure B debate again has exposed Sonoma’s struggle to define its place in Wine Country. Pretty much since American settlers seized the town in 1846 and proclaimed the California Republic — only to have the U.S. government claim it back 25 days later — the city has embraced a fiery independence and a reluctance to be pinned down. But that has come as more and more people from around the world discover its charms.
[An oft-heard concern around town these days is that the city is at risk of becoming another Healdsburg, which is described variously as trendy and overflowing with tourists. By contrast, Sonomans characterize their city as intimate, friendly and historic.
The perceptions persist even though Sonoma has more hotel rooms citywide and more tasting rooms in the downtown area than does Healdsburg. There’s also no shortage of high-end restaurants or shops in either town.
“I think they’re seeing our success and, I don’t know, maybe there’s a little jealousy,” Healdsburg City Councilman Gary Plass said of the sniping.
He said Healdsburg is benefiting from a strategic plan laid out in the early 1980s to embrace tourism. That plan included refurbishing the city’s downtown square, which earlier this year was named one of the nation’s best by Travel and Leisure Magazine. Sonoma’s plaza, which is much larger, didn’t make the cut.
“I don’t care if it’s Sonoma or Healdsburg, the quaint plaza, the 150-year-old streets, the old buildings are not enough to attract people,” Plass said. “You have to have an attractive industry, and that’s the tourist industry.”
Sonoma endeavors to be welcoming to visitors. But the city recently signaled its unease about where growth is headed by enacting regulations for formula stores — including a ban on large-scale restaurant chains on the Plaza — and considering new restrictions for tasting rooms, which some feel have proliferated at a rate disproportionate to other businesses.
There’s a certain protectionist element in Sonoma that Healdsburg hasn’t had. That’s why this battle has become symbolic of something so much larger,” said David McCuan, a Sonoma State University political scientist who lives in Sonoma.
Bill Dardon has built a career selling real estate in Sonoma and has an office on the Plaza. But he said he’s backing Measure B because of fears a “major” hotel could exacerbate traffic congestion downtown.
“Getting through the Plaza on any weekend, normal or otherwise, will take you up to 20 minutes,” said Dardon, who also runs the Tuesday night farmers markets.
The measure’s opponents argue that a hotel catering to overnight guests would not worsen traffic nearly as much as, say, a strip mall or other development.
David Senner, a retired businessman who moved to Sonoma two years ago, said people who support capping hotel rooms simply “fear change.” He also said it wouldn’t be “hospitable” to force visitors to stay outside the city’s center and have to drive in to experience it.
“It’s great to have a nice, small town. But it should be accessible so other people can appreciate it,” he said.
Sonoma has 39 lodging properties with a total of 527 rooms. Half of the properties have no more than three rooms. Five lodging properties have more than 25 rooms and provide 78 percent of the city’s total room supply, according to a consultant’s report paid for by the city.
The city’s report noted there is a limited pool of investors for smaller lodging in Sonoma because such development lacks “operating efficiencies and marketing advantages of larger properties.” Such larger hotels bring in more bed taxes, which in turn help fund city services, because these facilities historically have had higher occupancy rates, the report said.
Measure B proponents argue that it’s pointless to build more hotels in Sonoma when the city doesn’t fill current vacancies. They also still are upset over creation of the city’s Tourism Improvement District, launched last year, which levies an additional 2 percent tax on lodgings.
Transit occupancy taxes, also known as bed taxes, are the largest source of general fund revenue for Sonoma. The city took in $13.8 million in general-fund revenue in fiscal year 2012-13, and of that amount, $4.6 million, or approximately 34 percent, was derived from sales tax associated with tourism, plus bed taxes, according to City Manager Carol Giovanatto.
The dueling Measure B campaigns both argue that a victory for their side will stimulate Sonoma’s economy, while also protect the city from unwanted development, ease traffic congestion and empower citizens in the planning process.
Anderson has estimated that his hotel project alone, based on the original plans, would pump $14 million annually into the local economy. He also announced an agreement to pay employees under the city’s Living Wage Ordinance and not oppose any efforts to unionize.
Measure B proponents contend that available rooms, and not the size of the lodging facility, determine bed-tax revenue. They say the city consultant’s finding that large hotels generate more such taxes was flawed because it included vacation rentals and B&B’s in calculating bed taxes for small lodges, which have lower occupancy rates than hotels.
Whatever the outcome, said Stephen Havlek, Sonoma will never revert to the days when children rode into the plaza on horseback and ordered root beers at a drug store, which is now a Chico’s women’s clothing store.
“That Sonoma is gone,” said Havlek, who since 1972 has owned Sign of the Bear, a popular kitchen store on the Plaza. “The question is, where do you want to go?”
What: A citywide ballot measure that would limit any new hotel or hotel expansion to 25 rooms unless the city has an annual occupancy rate of at least 80 percent. Projects of more than 25 rooms would require approval from four of the five city council members.
When: Election day is Nov. 19, mail ballots go out Oct. 21
Why: Concern by some residents that Sonoma is becoming too tourist oriented; triggered in part by a proposal, since withdrawn, for a 59-room hotel near the Plaza.
– Sonoma never has had an 80 percent occupancy rate, according to City Hall. The rate was 65 percent in 2012
– The city has 39 lodging properties with a total of 527 rooms.
– Five hotels have 25 or more rooms and provide 78 percent of the city’s room supply.
– Hotel “bed” taxes are the largest source of general fund revenue for Sonoma.