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The politics of style: Inside Sonoma’s Design Review Commission

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Venture too far from the Sonoma city limits and the aesthetic of the landscape changes quickly. Strip malls thick with chain stores mar the land, and the grandiosity of manifest destiny is made plain. Out there, in most places, bigger is better. Out there, it seems, growth is the goal.

Here in Sonoma there are different priorities – like fierce dedication to preservation of the town’s charm. We treasure our old buildings and our verdant Plaza, we are ferocious in protection of our viewscapes. But who arbitrates taste and style for the City of Sonoma? Who decides what’s attractive and what’s not? When an ice cream parlor paints a door pink or a restaurant runs a Jolly Roger up its flagpole, who determines whether or not they must be censored?

The intrepid commissioners of the Design Review and Historic Preservation Commission, five of them in total, plus an alternate – that’s who.

Serving at the behest of individual city councilmembers, each commissioner’s term runs congruent with the councilmember who appoints them. Following the recent re-seating of all city commissions, the new Design Review and Historic Preservation Committee gathered for its first time last week.

They began with the basic housekeeping that governs government: election of officers and a review of the rules. Then they waded right in to the governance of aesthetics, considering a raft of public requests. Should they allow two signs — one freestanding, one wall-attached — to be installed at a commercial address? How about signage on a downtown awning? An exterior porch added to an existing hotel? Demolition of a single-family residence or construction of another?

There were 10 action items on the commission’s first agenda and, for two hours, they persevered. “It was a very heavy agenda,” said Wendy Atkins, associate city planner and point person for the DRHPC. “It’s usually more like five or six items.”

So what is the mission of the DRHPC, exactly? “To protect the architectural heritage of Sonoma, identify and preserve significant historical resources, enhance the visual character of the built environment, and promote excellence in town design and architecture,” said Atkins, reading from official city paperwork.

Governed by 142 pages of municipal guidelines, the committee’s operating instructions aren’t beach reading. The book covers the myriad rules that govern building standards in Sonoma, all dictated in the arcane parlance of bureaucracy. There are rules for historic buildings and other rules for non-historic ones. There are rules about plantings, lighting and paint. All said, there’s a lot that goes into maintaining the loveliness of a historic town, and it’s a job the commissioners take very seriously.

“It’s a very important position,” said Terry Birt, who works in real estate and was appointed by City Councilmember Amy Harrington. “You don’t take it lightly, you study the material. You use your guidelines to put it all together to see that it fits.”

As a group, the five commissioners represent Sonoma’s business diversity well. There is Birt, representing real estate, and Charles Cormany, from the energy sector. Michealia Randolph and Leslie Tipple, veteran commissioners reappointed by Hundley and Cook, respectively, bring marketing expertise and design experience to the commission. Christopher Rateaver is a facilities and project manager at Emotive/Simraceway; and Christopher Johnson, the alternate unanimously elected by the entire city council, runs classic car wine country tours. Johnson’s alternate position seems — at first glance — the short straw, required as he is to attend monthly meetings without wielding any real power. “Oh, no, he’s important!” said Associate City Planner Atkins. “It’s not uncommon for commissioners to need to recuse themselves, as they might own property within 500 feet of a project that comes before them.”

Chairperson Leslie Tipple believes her “background as an exterior/interior color designer will help to enhance the architecture and character of our town.” And Vice-Chair Michealia Randolph said her “overall goal as a Commissioner is to keep Sonoma beautiful.”

Beauty is in the eye of the beholder, it is said, but blight, it seems, is empirical. For Sonoma, a pink door was the aesthetic red line in 2014. That’s when Design Review’s controversial approval of the “cerise delight”-colored entryway to the now-defunct Grandma Linda’s ice cream shop on First Street East was appealed to the City Council.

“Color is sensitive, and we do encourage people to select colors that are compatible to the surrounding area,” Atkins said, diplomatically. “But around the Plaza, we’d prefer they stay within Benjamin Moore’s historical palette.”

So the Design Review and Historic Preservation Commission will move Sonoma forward while keeping it in place, as the big world beyond tumbles on.

Contact Kate at kate.williams@sonomanews.com.