By CLARK MASON
THE PRESS DEMOCRAT
Plans have surfaced for a second new hotel in downtown Healdsburg as debate grows over how much more visitor lodging should be built in the favored Wine Country destination.
Just a week after an application was withdrawn for a controversial five-story, 75-room hotel a half block south of Healdsburg Plaza, another group of developers is proposing a smaller hotel on a parking lot across the street.
She initially said the four-story hotel would have around 40 rooms, but later said the number is being recalculated because the lot is smaller than first believed.
The proposal comes as City Council members are being urged by some residents to clamp down on hotel construction downtown.
If the council doesn’t act, some residents are considering a ballot measure to limit the size of hotels, similar to an initiative before voters Tuesday in the City of Sonoma.
“I think the city should either ban hotels, or severely limit the number of rooms and hotels in the downtown business district,” said Bruce Abramson, a mortgage broker and former Healdsburg park and recreation commissioner worried about the loss of small-town character.
Traffic backups on Healdsburg Avenue and lack of downtown parking, he said “get worse every year due to this tourist tsunami we are having.”
City Council members acknowledge some of the city’s parking policies need to be re-examined to ensure new development provides enough parking.
And city officials also have mentioned possibly building a municipal parking garage at some point using fees levied on new projects.
City Manager Marjie Pettus said she is in the process of hiring a consultant to perform a market analysis of lodging.
“We want to have objective data on demand, market capacity, room rates and type of lodging,” she said.
In separate interviews this week, council members were divided on the idea of placing restrictions on hotel size.
“I’m open to the conversation,” said Mayor Susan Jones. “It’s a balancing act and we have to be careful in that we don’t lose our small-town charm.”
“I’m not in favor of an initiative that would limit what you can build downtown,” said Councilman Tom Chambers. “It has unintended consequences. With regulations, there’s always something else that pops out.”
Councilman Gary Plass said the city planning process works.
“Some people say there are too many hotels, the streets are crowded. Show me the facts. Because a lot of people are downtown on a Friday night it’s overcrowded?”
Plass argued that city officials do a good job planning projects one at a time, and any moratorium or tight restriction on hotel size “would put a stop to entrepreneurs to express their thoughts and dreams.”
Councilman Shaun McCaffrey struck a similar chord:
“There’s a reason why we have elected government — to make decisions for people in the city. Putting a hotel limitation in place would just kind of tie the hands of the elected officials.”
“You never know what’s going to come in the future. You have to put some trust in the people you elected,” McCaffrey said.
Councilman Jim Wood said it’s useful to have a discussion about hotels downtown and some of that is occurring in strategic planning sessions the city has been holding to help determine Healdsburg’s strengths, weaknesses and direction.
“Maybe tourism has gone too far,” Wood acknowledged. “I’m sensitive to that. It’s my home.”
“I appreciate what tourism has done for our community. There’s a lot of positives,” he continued. “I also want to see some diversity. In a downturn in the economy, what we have may not be sustainable.”
Warren Watkins, the retired math teacher who fought against Saggio Hills — the approved, yet unbuilt, luxury home project with a 130-room hotel resort on the edge of town — has spoken to most of the council members about restricting lodging.
He would like to see the City Council put something on the ballot to curb hotel size, but, if not, he might mount a citizen campaign to do so.
“We are not saying no to hotels. We’re just saying small hotels (only),” he said, suggesting that might be no more than 30 to 40 rooms.
He said Healdsburg Plaza gets crowded and is ringed by tasting rooms, wine bars and galleries.
“That’s not small-town character. That’s party town character, entertainment center or theme park,” Watkins said.
He is watching to see what happens Tuesday in Sonoma and whether voters approve the Hotel Limitation Measure. It would cap new hotels with more than 25 rooms or expansion of existing ones beyond that threshold unless Sonoma achieves an annual occupancy rate of 80 percent, which the city has never done.
The recently proposed 75-room hotel proposed by the Kessler Group just south of the Healdsburg Plaza drew strong opposition because it exceeded the city’s 50-foot height limitation, as well as density allowed on the parcel.
Kessler representatives withdrew in the face of the feedback from city staff and the community, but said they would consider coming back with a re-tooled project.
Sher, who wants to build a smaller hotel on a parking lot at 227 Healdsburg Ave., said it would be within city codes without requests for any variances.
She said there would be no restaurant, be “low key” and have very low impact with “stackable” parking on the ground floor.
“We’re working hard trying to be especially sensitive to the community,” she said.
Although there has been speculation about what she and her partners are planning for two office buildings and a vacant lot they bought at the corner of Healdsburg Avenue and North Street, Sher said there are long-term plans for a mixed-use project there, but no hotel.