Anticipating change is not anti-Sonoma

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.