Almost 200 people crowded into Burlingame Hall in Sonoma Thursday evening to hear a civil, spirited discussion of the ramifications of the Hotel Limitation Initiative (Measure B), from the point of view of both supporters and opponents.
If approved, the measure would prohibit the construction of new hotels with more than 25 rooms or expansion of existing ones past 25 rooms, until occupancy levels of 80 percent are reached for the previous calendar year. A special election to decide the issue will be held Nov. 19.
Speaking in favor of the measure were Larry Barnett, a former City Council member, mayor and one-time B&B proprietor, and Ed Clay, owner of Carneros Studios, a custom furniture maker. Barnett is also chair of the Preserving Sonoma Committee, which sponsored the measure. Speaking against the measure were Steve Page, president of Sonoma Raceway and Bill Blum, general manager of MacArthur Place Hotel & Spa. Page and Blum represented the Protect Sonoma committee, which is opposed to Measure B.
Dick Fogg, chairman of the Sonoma County Planning Commission, served as moderator, reading pre-established questions that each side answered and neither side had previously seen. Following an hour of lively back and forth debate on six wide-ranging questions, another half-hour was devoted to questions submitted by members of the audience.
The first round of questions covered the measure’s impact on the urban growth boundary, pedestrian and vehicular traffic, how numbers were selected to limit rooms and occupancy, implications for future city finances, why only hotels were targeted and other types of commercial developments were not, and what defines small town character.
But the heart of the issue appeared to come down to trust. Why are local city processes that provide several opportunities for public input and participation, not trusted to achieve the right and wise development decision for Sonoma? Why is an initiative needed to set the limits in place, without discussion of specific projects on a case-by-case basis with legally-mandated public hearings?
“All projects go through a process,” said Page. “This community engages in this very actively. Things that get approved are modified. The problem with Measure B is that it doesn’t trust the process.” He said the argument for Measure B implies that it is possible to steamroll the elected and appointed people who make development decisions. Instead, without an opportunity for public hearings on individual projects, the public is losing its voice.
Clay disagreed, saying the system is only good for people who know how to work it. “Applicants have staff and lawyers … (while) a citizen might find an hour or two to voice their opinion.” He said the process in place will continue to work, but only for projects of 25 rooms or less.
The “trust” issue appeared to be different when it came to county development decisions. Blum suggested that, with hotel size limited to 25 rooms inside the city, development pressure could force future hotel developers to build outside city boundaries – perhaps in the four corners area near the intersection of Leveroni Road and Broadway – which would deprive the city of transient occupancy tax (TOT or bed tax) revenue, and could add to traffic problems because visitors would then have to drive into the Plaza, the focal point of most tourist visits.