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A citizens' group looking to limit the size of new hotels in Healdsburg said their voter survey shows strong support for a potential ballot measure.

Not only did 78 percent of registered voters who responded to their mail survey say they wanted size restrictions, but half said new hotels should have 20 rooms or less.

"We feel the city needs to put this issue on the November ballot," Warren Watkins, founder of Healdsburg Citizens for Sustainable Solutions, told the City Council last week.

But council members, who questioned the reliability of the survey, are not inclined to do so.

"Mr. Watkins demanding we should put it on the ballot doesn't make sense with the unscientific data," Councilman Gary Plass said Thursday.

"It's very hard to say what the majority of citizens really feel," said Councilman Tom Chambers, who said the questions in the postcard poll "wanted to lead you to a certain answer" and he doesn't consider the results conclusive.

The citizens' group contends that Healdsburg is close to a tipping point, becoming too tourist-centric at the expense of local residents who fear the small-town character is being lost.

The city had 11,509 residents in 2013, and increase of 594 people over the past 13 years, according to state Department of Finance demographic reports.

Watkins' group and his wife Janis, an attorney, six years ago sued the city and the developers of Saggio Hills, a proposed luxury hotel and housing development, in an unsuccessful attempt to scale back the project, which has yet to be built.

Last year, the debate over whether Healdsburg is being overrun by visitors flocking to the heart of Wine Country was stirred up by a proposed 75-room, five-story hotel just south of the town plaza.

The project was dropped, but it prompted discussion of a ballot initiative, similar to one that was narrowly defeated in November in Sonoma, to limit the size of new hotels and the expansion of existing ones.

Two weeks ago, Healdsburg Citizens for Sustainable Solutions mailed a flyer to 3,400 households with likely voters in what organizers said was an attempt to gauge opinion and enlist supporters.

It was headlined "Concerned About Healdsburg? Our Future is at Stake ..." and included a photo of the rain-starved Russian River and downtown traffic backed up on Healdsburg Avenue.

The mailer included a postcard asking residents to complete an eight-question survey on growth and development issues.

Within a week, according to Watkins, there were 260 responses — most by postcard and some online at HealdsburgSolutions.com — reflecting overwhelming support for a restriction on new hotels, a need for more parking, and a one-year moratorium on new construction due to water shortages. Nearly 70 percent of respondents were also strongly against relaxing the city's growth control ordinance.

About two thirds of those who responded said not enough is being done to preserve Healdsburg's small-town character. About the same percentage said there is not currently a balance between resident and visitor needs.

Watkins described himself as "amazed" by the findings, which he said represented the sentiments of "a silent majority."

But Councilman Shaun McCaffrey said he was concerned that supporters of Healdsburg Citizens for Sustainable Solutions — who number more than 200 — "could be overly represented in the results. That would be my worry."

And McCaffrey said he thinks there was a little bit of "push polling" designed to elicit the desired answers.

Councilman Plass said he hears from residents who value Healdsburg's small town identity and don't want "mega hotels." But he said they also don't see the need for an ordinance that adds another layer of bureaucracy mandating the size of new lodging, and they are comfortable with the manner in which projects are vetted and handled by city staff.

But Jim Winston, who spearheaded the survey for the citizens' group, disagreed. "Our preliminary results should have sent a clear and resounding message to the City Council and staff that they may not be representing the interests of voters," he said Friday.

Mayor Jim Wood said it would be premature to put the hotel size restriction question to voters until the city receives a consultant's report assessing the hotel market in Healdsburg, which likely will delve into occupancy rates and a comparison to other tourist destinations.

The study is expected to be presented sometime in the next month, he said.

"We need to balance Warren's presentation with the study we commissioned," Wood said, "and listen to the community as well."

Wood noted that the same night Watkins presented the results of his survey, there were a number of citizens asking the council to loosen up restrictions on vacation rental homes because there are not enough hotel rooms available.

"Clearly we have people who want to bring more people to town and people who don't," he said.

(You can reach Staff Writer Clark Mason at 521-5214 or clark.mason@pressdemocrat.com.)