Nearly $200,000 spent in Sonoma hotel limits fight

Last year's bruising ballot-box fight in Sonoma over the size of hotels likely set a new spending record in the city, with rival campaigns shelling out nearly $200,000, reports released Friday show.

The amount is breathtaking for a city the size of Sonoma, where voters on Nov. 4 rejected Measure B by a mere 124 votes.

The Hotel Limitation Measure would have capped new hotels at 25 rooms or expansion of existing ones beyond that threshold unless Sonoma achieved an annual occupancy rate of 80 percent, which the city has never done. In 2012, the rate was just under 65 percent.

Advocates on both sides of the controversial issue Friday disputed Measure B's lasting impact on the city.

Many viewed it as a referendum on Sonoma's future and whether the city of 10,000 is in danger of being overrun by tourists and by businesses and services that cater to out-of-towners.

"It started a discussion. It activated a community that in my opinion had fallen asleep about its future," said Larry Barnett, Measure B's main proponent.

He said the money spent on the campaign, including $25,000 out of his own pocket, "absolutely was worth it."

Mayor Tom Rouse, however, who opposed the measure, said Friday it had "zero impact" on the city, other than there will "maybe be one more look" at proposed projects.

He said Measure B supporters "put out the word that they're watching. I don't think we need the watchdog, quite frankly."

No hotel projects are officially pending in Sonoma. The current debate was sparked by developer Darius Anderson's proposal to build a 59-room luxury hotel on West Napa Street a half-block from the Plaza, on the site of the Sonoma Index-Tribune, which Anderson owns.

Anderson, who has a home just outside Sonoma city limits, is a Sacramento lobbyist and principal of Sonoma Media Investments, which owns The Press Democrat. He did not return a message Friday seeking comment.

Bill Hooper, president of Anderson's company, Kenwood Investments, also did not respond to several messages this week.

Protect Sonoma, which was backed by the Anderson group, spent nearly $136,000 to defeat Measure B, campaign finance records released Friday show.

Of that, about $50,000 was cash donations. Chateau Sonoma Hotel Group LLC pitched in another $73,000 in nonmonetary contributions, mainly for consulting fees, advertising and mailers, records show.

Of the $55,000 raised by Barnett's group, about $26,000 came in the form of cash donations, records show. Barnett said he forgave the $25,000 loan he made to the campaign. He still owes about $8,600 to attorneys who drafted the initiative.

Barnett said he's concerned that the combined amounts raised on Measure B could usher in a new era of heavy spending on campaigns and city council races in Sonoma.

"I think that's unfortunate, because Sonoma always has been a small-scale campaign town," he said.

Three council seats are up for grabs this year, including Rouse's. He said Friday he has not decided whether to seek re-election.

Rouse said should he run, he is not worried about people voting against him because of his opposition to Measure B. He said he hoped people didn't run for the council based on how much money they can spend.

"Let's keep it small, let's keep it smart, let's keep it sane," he said of the upcoming election season.