By Larry Barnett
There’s a lot of money to be made in tourism and, without some sensible limitations in place, it’s only a matter of time before Sonoma suffers the over-developed fate of other formerly-charming small towns popular with tourists. Those towns all had city councils, commissions, planning directors, general plans and a “process in place,” which raises the question: how do we prevent it from happening to Sonoma?
Ironically, Sonoma’s small-scale charm and character is what big-hotel developers seek to employ as the key to their success; in the process, however, they can destroy it. If we lose the character residents so appreciate, we will also lose the tourists and end up in a hotel-room price war with other over-built wine country towns. It’s our small-town sense of place that makes Sonoma an attractive destination, not our big hotels, as nice as they are.
Small hotels best suit our scale and character. Two successful hotels under 25 rooms built during the past 10 years joined the older, small Sonoma and Swiss Hotels. The Eldorado Hotel has only 27 rooms. Small hotels often include a restaurant, but lack the high-intensity multiple uses of conference and meeting facilities, spas, health clubs, wedding and event centers. Thus they are quieter, less hurried and have lower impacts on neighborhoods, traffic and residents than do big hotels.
Hotel taxes are important, but as the regional economy has improved, our TOT (hotel tax) has been increasing without any new hotels. Sonoma is in excellent financial condition, with healthy reserves. Though large hotels in town publicly oppose Measure B because it limits their expansion, they also know the law of supply and demand will raise their occupancy and TOT. The recently imposed 2 percent Tourism Improvement District fee, paid by overnight hotel guests, produces $450,000 a year and is paradoxically spent on “branding” Sonoma by methods like placing ads on BART. Sonoma needs no branding; we are world famous. These valuable revenues would be better directed to our General Fund.
Measure B opponents say if big hotels are not allowed, strip malls will be built instead. This argument is false; it implies big hotels are the lesser of two evils, dismisses creative land-use solutions and ignores prevailing community sentiment.
Our opponents also argue Measure B will force hotel development just outside our Urban Growth Boundary; this is also untrue. The county is committed to respecting the intent and spirit of all city UGB measures, and will not extend sewer and water, nor approve such applications. Measure B does not affect our UGB, but it’s worth noting that, by 2020, the UGB must be renewed. If it is not, and city limits expand, very large resort applications will be possible.
The causes of over-development always include the power and seduction of money, but also government funding, politics, land use regulation, the strength of developers and weak advocacy for the public interest. Local government is a monopoly and not subject to the kind of competitive pressures that improve productivity in private enterprise. Thus government more readily turns to fees, taxes and related income to meet its costs. With taxes difficult to raise, business development is given priority. Reducing expenses risks offending special interests, and often receives less attention.