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.
Politics, as we all know, is subject to many influences, and our political leaders are only human. Friendships, campaign contributors, interest groups, personal ambition and many other factors bear on decisions that are made by public officials. Sometimes these factors simply overwhelm good judgment; we feel the council majority decision to choose a side in this election is an example.
Land-use regulation leans to the side of private property rights. If a use is not specifically prohibited, it’s likely to find a path to fruition. Accordingly, developers can marshal an army of professionals to shepherd a project through the system; architects, planning experts, traffic consultants and varied specialists are accorded many hours of presentation time. Scale models, presentations, budget forecasts and computer-rendered street views developed with an eye on securing permit approval are offered to mostly non-professional commissioners. The public can attend these exhausting sessions, but individuals get squeezed into three-minute time-slots. It’s no competition; in the end just three members of the City Council can entirely control the outcome.
Finally, the public interest is not always well represented, though that is precisely what the decision-makers are supposed to do – ensure the good of the community as a whole. As a result, public health and welfare frequently gets short shrift in the permit-approval process. Occasionally, by the time a problem is officially recognized, it’s too late to do much about it. The proliferation of nearly 30 so-called “wine-tasting rooms” around the Plaza is a prime example of how quickly things can get out of control. Lacking a proactive approach, the city ends up responding to problems instead of anticipating and planning for them. If government won’t plan, then it’s up to the voters to do it.
Measure B is about residents envisioning our future and guiding it. Do we want an economy of “more” or an economy of “enough”? This election is a small step in a larger movement. It’s long past time our region takes a hard look at tourism and its complex impacts on environment, infrastructure and society.
Preserving Sonoma is a locally managed, volunteer, grassroots group funded by more than 300 community members. Protect Sonoma, on the other hand, has been sponsored and largely funded by a hotel developer and managed by an out-of-town campaign consultant. This is perfectly legal, but rather than honestly advocating for big hotels, their lawn signs and mailers are instead designed to confuse and mislead voters. Measure B is simple; it stops new big hotels by limiting the number of rooms to 25 until Sonoma’s annual occupancy rate justifies larger hotels. Voters liked the idea well enough to place it on the ballot. When our efforts began, two developers were eying locations for big hotels. If Measure B loses, they’ll be back.
This is an election about meaning and values; appropriately, as an expression of direct democracy, every voter in Sonoma has the opportunity to have their voice counted. Using the initiative process in 1999, we said “no” to a resort on the hillside. In 2000, we created the Urban Growth Boundary. Unfortunately, it seems that every decade or so it’s necessary for us to point out that some things are more important than money.
If you want to stop big hotels and preserve our small town for the next generation, please vote “yes” on B, the Hotel Limitation Measure.
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Larry Barnett is chair of the Preserving Sonoma Committee and a former Sonoma city council member and mayor.