Measure B divided city

Election day has come and gone, the votes have been counted, and a winner has been declared. But changing the date on your desk calendar cannot alter the philosophical positions that split Sonoma into two camps. Wounds are fresh and the division is still there.

Now, the real challenge begins – how to bring two opposing forces together for the good of the community. Leaders on both sides of the issue say a new dialogue has begun, a conversation about how the community will retain its singular identity while functioning in an environment where tourism pays the bills.

“The divisions in Sonoma are real and they can’t be papered over,” said Larry Barnett, who led the fight to limit hotel development to projects with 25 rooms or less. “What’s important is that they be examined and exposed in a process respecting difference, and not by feeding conflict through dismissive and demeaning behavior. It takes hard work, practice, and occasional failure, but this is something I believe is essential for a healthy society.”

Bill Blum, the general manager of MacArthur Place who was often a spokesperson for the “No on B” side, agrees. “There was a lot of talk about how divided the community was, but most people on both sides had their hearts in the right place, so I’m confident we can work together and find common ground as Sonoma continues to grow.”

Meanwhile, Darius Anderson, whose hotel project was put on hold pending the outcome of the election, will eventually restart the Environmental Impact Report process. But the election has given him time to reflect on how he wants to proceed.

“Moving forward, we’ll talk to people who were opposed and get their input,” said Anderson. “Over the last three months, people came in to our office and highlighted problems they had with the project. It was good input.”

The project has been evolving since that time, and will continue to change as new and better ideas are put forward, he said. “We’ve gone ahead and redesigned and we’re still willing to listen. If more changes are proposed, we’re open to that, but we want to know what the top concerns are.”

Anderson is a principal in Sonoma Media Investments, the owner of the Index-Tribune.

Barnett claimed money played a major role in the election outcome. “I think we underestimated the effect of all the hyperbolic mailers sent to voters by the NO on B side. We estimate the cost of those mailings will top $50,000 alone. We could not compete with that level of spending.”

He added that he thought the familiar status quo is generally easier for people to accept than something new. “Many people also thought ‘no’ meant ‘no big hotels,’” he claimed, “and we found ourselves spending much more time than we expected explaining what ‘yes’ would do. The election was very close and we have no idea what contribution confusion made.”

Anderson believes the “no” campaign was successful because it was about facts. “The ‘yes’ campaign got ahead of us and had more momentum. We educated people with facts and gave them time to think about what a sensible, well-built revenue stream could do for the city.”

The revenues he referred to are transient occupancy taxes, which currently provide about $2.5 million a year to the city’s General Fund. According to a study done by Kayser Marsten, 80 per cent of that revenue comes from hotels larger than 25 rooms.

Anderson’s hotel was proposed to be 59 rooms, with a variety of amenities such as restaurant, event center, spa, concierge service, and valet parking. But in the end, both parties agree that the issues surrounding Measure B were not about a specific hotel.

“It became less about me and my hotel and more about the future of the city,” said Anderson.

Barnett agrees. “Measure B was never about the Anderson hotel specifically. It was a comprehensive solution so that whatever the specifics of a proposal, at least the community would know the maximum rooms possible. If Mr. Anderson wants to share his revised plans with me and others on the YES side, that would be fine. I think our concerns are pretty obvious by now – size and intensity of use have always been our focus.”

Michael Ross, architect for Anderson’s hotel plans, concurred that community input will be a key part of completing the project proposal.

“The next step will be to continue reaching out to the community,” he said, “especially those who supported Measure B, and to submit a design that is based on that input. We believe this project will only be approved if it is responsive to the community’s concerns. Following that, we will prepare preliminary design drawings and start the review process via two study sessions with the Planning Commission and the Design Review Commission in the same month. After those sessions we will refine or recast the proposed hotel design based on the comments received and then formally submit the use permit application for consideration.”

Ross added that the input should flow in both directions. “In the best sense, the discussion with the Planning Commission, DRC and the community should be educational and two-way. Our definition of ‘winning’ is larger than just gaining approvals. Winning is creating a timeless design that is genuine to place, will delight both locals and guests and intuitively fits Sonoma.”

For now, the dust has settled and what is arguably the most expensive campaign in Sonoma’s history – nearly $125,000 spent on both sides with more money owed – will soon come to a close.

For Anderson and his partners, Kenwood Investments, the process is only beginning and several more public meetings will be held even before a final, more formal plan is submitted to the city.

“I think because of Measure B, future projects will now be looked at with a greater sensitivity,” said Blum.

And Anderson’s hotel may not be the only one scrutinized. The Kessler Group, once interested in the Sonoma Truck and Auto site on Broadway, may come back with a proposal. And existing hotels, with space enough to do it, might want to add rooms in the future.

In the meantime, Sonomans are left to sort out the future of their city through other means. But it remains to be seen how long and how much the active interest in that future persists. With all the passion expressed about measure B, only about 61 percent of the electorate voted, meaning that more than 2,500 people who were registered to do so didn’t care enough about the issue to mark a ballot.