Don’t let him rob us again

By Joe Aaron


What started out as opposition to Darius Anderson’s proposal for a high-end hotel near the Plaza has turned into a local civil war. The two biggest issues appear to be commercial growth and the transit occupancy tax (TOT), a debate that’s caused our otherwise sophisticated and civilized residents to now be at each other’s throats. Everyone has a deeply held and intransigent position about both this hotel and Measure B.

Larry Barnett is the sponsor of the Measure B, and while no one thinks it was ever his intention, the law of unintended consequences has raised its ugly head. This has deeply divided the people throughout Sonoma Valley, extending far beyond city limits.

I attended a semi-formal debate on this initiative recently. A lot of those in attendance live outside the city limits and therefore can’t vote, even though many of them serve on our nonprofit boards and donate both time and money generously.

Measure B requires an annual occupancy rate of 80 percent for all lodging before a new hotel can be built with more than 25 rooms, or an existing hotel can build even one room beyond the 25-room limit. As long as one of the four seasons includes winter, 80 percent is not going to happen.

Measure B also requires that four of our five City Council members approve all new hotel projects, regardless of size. This little-talked-about supermajority voting provision will further stymie any economic development potential for tourism-based businesses, weakening Sonoma’s ability to stabilize and enhance our community service funding in the future.

Sonoma currently has 527 hotel rooms. Mr. Anderson’s current proposal would add 59 rooms, or about 10 percent to the existing numbers. This first-class hotel is projected to generate more than $3.5 million in TOT and $1.8 million in property tax revenues over the first five years, along with more than $40 million in additional spending at nearby businesses. The TOT revenues alone would increase by more than 20 percent in the first year.  TOT makes up 21 percent of the city’s total revenue. If we build this hotel, it will dramatically change our city for the better.

No alternative to the hotel will generate the same kind of income as a high-end hotel. Tourists at a high-end hotel are more likely to spend money here. Economists will tell you, every dollar spent at the hotel generates another four dollars in the community.

What no one has explained – if not a hotel, then what do they suggest? More tasting rooms, office space, retail? Talk about foot traffic. And the argument that a material increase in automobile traffic will occur is so far-fetched it is not worthy of a rebuttal.

Several years ago, premier restaurant developer Pat Kuleto wanted to build what would have been one of Sonoma’s signature restaurants where Bank of Marin is currently located. Back then, it was a Chevy’s restaurant. Thanks to Mr. Barnett, the restaurant never came to fruition.  Barnett voted “no,” saying the Plaza was three parking places short of what was needed. His decision was a financial blow to the city then, but it will pale in comparison to the public dollars denied Sonoma if Measure B succeeds. Don’t let him rob us again.


Joe Aaron is a Sonoma resident, a former FBI agent, a veteran of the securities industry and founder of  a Sonoma-based hedge fund.