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A tale of two cities: Hotel development – Sonoma vs. Healdsburg

Travel writers and tourism planners often cite Sonoma and Healdsburg as two must-see places in Sonoma County. Both are in the heart of Wine Country destinations. Both have highly-rated restaurants, hotels and spas. Both have charming plazas surrounded by unusual shops.

Although Sonoma is older, both cities have been in business a long time. While both cities have struggled in the past to provide quality commercial development that helps pay the bills for streets, fire and police, some critics have been unwelcoming, citing loss of “character” and the erosion of “small town feel.”

The opening of the Dickens classic, “A Tale of Two Cities,” may be the best summary of what’s afoot in both places. “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness …”

On Nov. 19, voters registered in the City of Sonoma will be asked to cast a ballot either for or against limiting the size of new hotels in Sonoma to 25 rooms or less, until occupancy in existing lodgings exceeds 80 percent in the previous one year period. The initiative, called Measure B, came about after a 59-room hotel, proposed by Chateau Sonoma Hotel Group on West Napa Street, half-a-block from the Plaza, began to go through the public approval process.

In Healdsburg, meanwhile, a luxury hotel chain called the Kessler Collection announced in August it had an option to buy a downtown parking lot south of Healdsburg Plaza with hopes to build a 60-to-70-room “boutique” hotel in that city. And while Healdsburg has been working to attract additional hotel development, there are dissident voices starting to rise there as well. Warren Watkins, who has contributed to the campaign to limit hotel size in Sonoma, has formed a group in Healdsburg called Citizens for Sustainable Solutions, and may propose a ballot measure to limit hotel development in that city.

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