Anticipating change is not anti-Sonoma

Valley Forum

By Larry Barnett

Opponents of the Hotel Limitation Measure say we don’t have a “hotel problem” in Sonoma, that few hotels have been built in the last 10 years and the measure is not needed. Setting aside the cumulative effects of growing tourism – increased traffic, crowds, noise, event centers and wine bars – it’s true few new hotels have been built recently. The Hotel Limitation Measure is about anticipating change, however, not waiting until we have a problem.

Residents can readily see how problems arise in the example of so-called wine tasting rooms. By the time the problem was recognized, the downtown area had 25 of them, and more in the pipeline. From alleyways to main streets, tasting rooms have proliferated quickly and now it’s too late to do much of anything. Doing nothing is a lousy way to plan for change.

That things will change is certain, one of the few certainties in life. How quickly and how deeply, however, are questions that can be anticipated and for which the City of Sonoma can plan. Looking at towns like Yountville or Healdsburg, one sees how quickly large hotels can proliferate and alter the fabric of community.

Proportionate to its population, Yountville has three times as many hotel rooms as Sonoma. Over the past decade, it has simultaneously lost 10 percent of its residents. It’s fun to visit Disneyland, but not a lot of fun to live there. Healdsburg has three new hotel proposals before it right now. Without limitations in place it will happen here.

Those who claim we don’t have a hotel problem ignore the reality that once a problem develops it’s most often too late to do anything about it. Government moves at a glacial pace, and with land use law being tilted toward development, combined with pressure from the development and business community to cash in on tourism, Sonoma is vulnerable.

When the Urban Growth Boundary was created to stop sprawl, opponents to it made the very same arguments we are hearing today. “We need new parcels of land for housing,” they said. “This will strangle Sonoma’s economy,” they preached. “We don’t have a sprawl problem,” declared the newspaper. Yet the UGB measure passed by 67 percent and Sonoma has remained vital, small and sprawl-free for 13 years. By anticipating what is predictable by observing the communities around us, Sonoma’s voters changed the course of history and saved Sonoma from becoming just another over-built bedroom community.

The Hotel Limitation Measure does not stop hotel development, it just keeps it small. Small is who we are and the key to our successful future in a world obsessed with big. The Conde Nast Traveler reader poll naming Sonoma one of America’s friendliest cities (the only one in California) said we’re “quaint” and “not like Napa,” which is not news to those of us who live here. Ironically, it’s also what visitors like most about Sonoma, and that things here tend towards small is part of it. Lose the small-town quality and we become just another price competitor for leisure travelers looking for bargains.

Measure B supporters are not anti-hotel or anti-Sonoma. We simply want to put policies in place to limit the rate and size of hotel growth. Barring that, we will find ourselves living in an overbuilt town asking, “How did we ever let this happen?”

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Written by Larry Barnett, a former Sonoma mayor and City Council member, and chair of the Preserving Sonoma Committee.


  • Mike Stephens

    Sadly The YES on B Camp are taking the wrong approach and pushing Sonoma further into decline. Perhaps we might have other shops and restaurants open if there were actually more quality places to stay in this town. Any somewhat intelligent individual can quickly do the math and see that a 25 room hotel is not feasible for many reasons. 59 hotel rooms is certainly not a large hotel. Those that think Sonoma will build 10 story hotels on the square and tear down historic buildings are using fear to scare those unaware of the impossibility of this. We need to keep up with the times and develop in a smart and thoughtful way that retains the historic nature and also keeps us fresha and interesting. This is something Sonoma hasn’t a clue about. One can easily see this from the awful recent additions in town and aesthetic decisions made on the square. I hope Sonoma residents really consider the importance of voting NO on Measure B and working together to provide guidelines for Urban Development that promote higher end tourism and more $$$ coming to Sonoma’s economy which ultimately benefits all residents. I have a feeling those voting YES on Measure B have very little to do with the community and spend their money other towns. Look at the list of supporters that will be voting NO on Measure B. They are all very involved in the community looking out for it, protecting it and making financial donations to keep an active social and cultural life going. Please vote NO on Measure B and help save Sonoma from a future that is not looking very bright.

    • Hugh Black

      Darn! I didn’t know we were in decline!! Who said that? Why? How?

    • David Eichar

      So, more large hotels will result in more shops and restaurants. How much is too much? The small town character is being chipped away. And now Mike says that more hotels will increase other development, more shops and restaurants. More development may help the pocket book of developers and the business owners, but the residents loose out on the charm that is Sonoma today. We loose a little bit of the charm every year. No more chickens on the Plaza or at the Chicken Car Wash.

  • Fred Allebach

    One thing: the opposition has this notion that Measure B is somehow subversive, yet a ballot initiative is as much a valid process in place as any other. The only difference is who has the power. Two, Sonoma is booming now, plenty of tax money coming in, unending traffic coming into town from all angles. It is obvious (?) that the transportation infrastructure is not adequate to handle the traffic we have already. Enough enough when residents can no longer drive across town. Safety and convenience of residents are the primary issues here; in an ocean of stop signs, schools etc, how will people get across town in 5 years when the core is chock a block full of tourists, hotels and all businesses are wine tasting shops? Three, yes many Sonomans do not shop in Sonoma because the prices here are like in an airport. Many working class families cannot afford tourist hyped prices. Sorry if the middle and working class can’t be considered community members if what they contribute does not have a dollar sign on it. Four, the definition of “sustainable” is being disputed here, the opposition seems to think sustainable means more, more, more, while the proponents use a more standard definition of limitation.

  • Mike Stephens

    I am not saying more restaurants and shop, but I am saying BETTER restaurants and shops. Sonoma is like a retirement village. Take a trip to Healdsburg and see how hip and happening it is. Soon Sebastapol will be the place to go with the new Barlow. Sonoma just falls behind over a 59 room hotel. I only hope developer has mulitple parcels and will open 25 room hotels on each and get a much needed quality project underway in Sonoma with a good bar and another restaurant. How is Burger and Vine doing? This seems to be dying on the vine too.