By CLARK MASON
THE PRESS DEMOCRAT
Healdsburg is undergoing a deliberate soul-searching exercise as it struggles with the tension between tourism, the needs of local residents and the town’s future direction.
New hotels planned downtown — particularly an application for a 75-room, five-story building that was withdrawn following objections to its height and density — have stoked the debate over the type of lodging that should be allowed without losing the small-town character.
It’s a similar discussion to the one that led to last week’s election in Sonoma, where a proposal to limit the size of new hotels was narrowly defeated.
And it echoes the cries of battles in the wine-and-food Mecca of Napa Valley, where residents worry about the proliferation of high-end resorts and traffic jams.
Healdsburg, situated near the intersection of three picturesque vine-growing valleys — Alexander, Dry Creek and Russian River — attracts visitors with its wine tasting rooms, trendy restaurants and shops bordering the shady, 156-year-old plaza.
While tourists can create congestion and parking problems, they also help cash registers ring and boost city coffers with hotel- and sales-tax revenues.
So far, the trade-off has been acceptable from the perspective of Healdsburg leaders, who acknowledge the need for more economic diversity in town, whether that means attracting jobs related to the high-tech industry, health care or education.
“A lot of cities would love to have the problems we are having,” Vice-Mayor Jim Wood said during a daylong “strategic planning” workshop last week attended by City Council members and department heads.
The workshop was part of a methodical look at Healdsburg’s strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats that was launched this year when the City Council hired a consultant for $25,000 to help probe those topics.
Residents, city employees and members of the business community have had the opportunity to chime in this fall during a series of sessions. The top concerns that emerged can be boiled down to three themes, from the viewpoint of City Manager Marjie Pettus: residents vs. tourists, housing and economic diversification.
Financial stability and the ability to maintain infrastructure, she said, also are part of the mix.
“Comparably speaking, we are in a good place,” is how Pettus summed things up in Healdsburg. “We have a solid foundation. What we need to decide is how we’re going to build on that to define the next chapter. What can we identify to provide jobs, revenue and community in a way that doesn’t rely exclusively on what we have in the past?”
Three decades ago, as Healdsburg shed its sleepy, lumber-town identity, city leaders decided to court the destination-tourist industry.
It was a recommendation that grew out of the findings of a 1982 report from a Regional/Urban Design Assistance Team that noted the city was constrained in its ability to grow by physical and environmental considerations.
“Tourists make no demands on the school system, few demands on recreation, water and sewer systems and, best of all, they go home,” the report said.
But even if visitors only stick around a short time, critics worry that a tourist “tsunami” has led Healdsburg too far in the wrong direction by creating traffic backups on weekends, overrunning the cherished plaza and driving out businesses that cater to locals.
There’s a “party town atmosphere,” said Warren Watkins, a retired math teacher who is threatening to mount a ballot initiative to restrict the height and size of new hotels.
Watkins brought a lawsuit in an unsuccessful attempt to reduce the size of Saggio Hills, the luxury home and 130-room hotel project approved by the City Council but still not built five years later.
“Our group’s goal is to protect the character and scale of small-town Healdsburg,” said Bruce Abramson, an ally of Watkins. “We hope the city will limit downtown hotels to room counts of 30 to 35, with full on-site parking and a three-story height limit.”
Abramson said that would help preserve the liveability and quality of life for everyone, because the “buildings need to reflect the historical and human-scale size of our town that both residents and tourists appreciate.”
He fears a “hotel alley” is developing along Healdsburg Avenue, composed of projects in the works downtown near the 55-room Hotel Healdsburg and h2hotel, with 36 rooms.
In all, there are 451 rooms in 27 hotels and bed-and-breakfast inns in Healdsburg, according to city officials. The largest is the Best Western Plus on Dry Creek Road with 165 rooms.
The Kessler Group withdrew its application for a 75-room, five-story hotel a half-block south of the Healdsburg Plaza but has indicated it may resubmit a scaled-down version.
Just across the street, the owners of Hotel Healdsburg and h2 are planning a smaller hotel with an initial estimate of about 40 rooms.
Watkins and Abramson were among 48 people who signed a petition demanding a one-year moratorium on hotel construction. It was presented last week to the City Council.
The group said no new hotels should be built while the city’s strategic planning process is underway and at least until December 2014.
None of the City Council members is in favor of a moratorium, however, though it is apparent they are wrestling with the question of how to strike the right balance with tourism.
They say the process of vetting projects through city staff, planning commissioners and the City Council works, and a temporary ban on new hotels or a voter-imposed restriction on size would tie the council’s hands.
“When an application comes in, it doesn’t mean it’s approved, or that it’s a fait accompli,” Mayor Susan Jones said of the modifications to which a project is subject.
“You need to grow. You don’t shut down what’s worked. There’s a group of people that wants to do this,” said Councilman Gary Plass.
During the City Council’s strategic planning workshop, Plass defended Healdsburg as more than than just tasting rooms and real estate offices, as reflected by more than 900 business licenses issued by the city.
“In my opinion, we never lost our agricultural roots,” said Plass, 60, a lifelong resident who grew up raising farm animals before having a career as a police officer. He believes the town has combined tourism and agriculture — especially wine — successfully, and that mix has helped Healdsburg better survive the economic downturn.
Plass sees the complaints about tourism as largely overblown. “I’m not going to apologize for Healdsburg being successful,” he said.
But council members have identified growing concerns, including parking.
A parking study is underway, and city officials are reconsidering a longstanding policy that exempted some types of development downtown — including hotels on lots smaller than 20,000 square feet — from having to provide parking.
There are other issues related to the influx of visitors, which has been accompanied by an increase in buyers of second homes, escalating property values, an aging population and a dwindling number of families.
“Parks are emptier of kids. Enrollment at schools is going down and down,” said Councilman Shaun McCaffrey, who said the city could use more affordable housing.
But at the same time, he said, “I think we could use more hotels,” especially since the city has been cracking down on unauthorized vacation-home rentals.
Councilman Wood said the self-analysis the city is undergoing through its strategic planning process is a chance to regroup and try to diversify.
“What’s the next opportunity for the community that is lower-impact, compared to tourism?” he said.
Councilman Tom Chambers said he is hopeful “we will come up with a clear direction” by the time the council adopts a strategic plan early next year.
(You can reach Staff Writer Clark Mason at 521-5214 or email@example.com.)