Editorial: CSEC Plaza policy is misguided

The Sonoma Plaza is considered by many to be hallowed ground, consecrated in the minds of many citizens by the generations of residents and visitors who have found peace and pleasure in its leafy eight acres, never mind that no one is known to be buried there and no ecclesiastical authority has ever, to anyone’s knowledge, bestowed an official blessing.

Nonetheless, it represents the heart and communal soul of the city and its social sanctity is guarded carefully by both official and unofficial caretakers.

Chief among the official caretakers are the nine members of the city’s Community Services and Environment Commission, who are charged with the responsibility to advise the City Council “on matters related to the preservation and enhancement of parks, recreational facilities, open space and the natural environment” and to “review major Plaza use applications,” according to the city website.

The commission is composed of uniformly capable, thoughtful and intelligent people who have the best interests of the Plaza in mind, and we generally respect the fine work they do. Recently, however, the CSEC seems to have taken a left turn down a dubious path of public policy, the logic of which defies our understanding, and the consequences of which, we believe, could be either dangerous or disastrous to the success of two iconic and profoundly important Plaza-related events.

The proposed policy would, among other things, prohibit any kind of sign or banner on the Plaza horseshoe in order to preserve “at all times” an unobstructed view of City Hall, “which is a National Historic Landmark.”

The policy would also prohibit “freestanding finish line delineations for races,” and would ban “event structures” in the Plaza during weekday hours between 8 a.m. and 5 p.m.

The impetus for the last policy, according to a CSEC memo, “stems from the observation that event structures in the Plaza Park during the week interfere with City Hall business, ”and also to encourage weekday events to use Depot Park instead.

We hope we’re wrong, but the logical interpretation of these policy changes leads to the following conclusions:

The Sonoma International Film Festival, entering its 18th year, would no longer be able to erect a tent on the parking lot behind City Hall to offer festival goers a centralized place to pick up tickets and information, as well as a place to meet, congregate and share the experience during the day between film showings. Instead, the tent would have to be relocated to Depot Park, a move that would dictate either an overly long walk from many film venues, or a significant and environmentally troubling increase in vehicular traffic.

Second, the whimsical, charming and attention-getting “SONOMAWOOD” sign, positioned by high school students on the Plaza horseshoe for just five days, would be banished, depriving the town of a noteworthy announcement of the festival and the opportunity for some fun public art.

Third, the Napa-Sonoma Wine Country Half Marathon – now one of the most popular foot races in the nation – would not be allowed to erect a free-standing finish line at the mouth of the horseshoe to welcome and record race finishers. That installation is in place less than eight hours.

The race itself has become one of the most popular half-marathons in the country, and literally sells out within minutes of being announced. The event brings 3,500 runners from coast to coast, and thousands of their friends and family members, generating much revenue and good will for Sonoma. A Chicago runner called it, “Probably the best half-marathon in the country.”

But that’s not all the CSEC is proposing. The commission wants to carry the rules a step further by changing city ordinance to “not allow for provisions in the policy for banners or signs on the horseshoe lawn to be considered by the City Council.”

That sounds suspiciously like an unwarranted power grab, diminishing the reach and authority of the elected representatives of the people.

The rationale for all this eludes us. We find the suggestion that erection of the SONOMAWOOD sign, for less than a week, somehow obscures public view of the historic City Hall, weak at best.

And are city employees truly inconvenienced if they can’t park behind City Hall three days a year?

And how does a temporary finish line on the Plaza horseshoe diminish appreciation of the historic Plaza?

With all due respect, we think the CSEC got it badly wrong and the City Council should reject the proposed policy.