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A citizens' group seeking to limit the size of new hotels and retain Healdsburg's small town character got some defensive reactions Monday night from City Council members and others who praised the city's ability to handle growth and preserve the quality of life.

Healdsburg Citizens for Sustainable Solutions came under fire for the validity of its voter survey last month that it claimed supported restrictions on hotel size and the need to strike a better balance between the needs of residents and visitors.

"The community still has a small town flavor," said Councilman Gary Plass who extolled Healdsburg's parks and volunteerism. He agreed that Healdsburg is not what it used to be, but asserted "it's much, much better."

While it may not have been a scientific survey, members of the citizens' group said the results reinforced the need to maintain the small town identity most everyone values.

"We hope you listen to these voices. A bigger town is not necessarily a better town," said Warren Watkins, the founder of the citizens' group. "Many are concerned about the future of this town."

Watkins was non-committal about whether his organization will seek to put a measure restricting hotel size on the ballot.

"We're hoping for the City Council to put it on the ballot. It doesn't have to be us. That's up in the air," he told council members.

Council members noted that the city is studying parking, hotel demand and trying to bring in more diverse businesses. They noted that years ago the city decided to pursue tourism and also doesn't allow big box stores.

"What do you want us to do with this information?" Mayor Jim Wood asked Watkins of the survey results. "We have been working our tails off to be responsive to the community."

But council members acknowledged more needs to be done to create affordable housing, especially so young families can afford to live in Healdsburg.

"I admit to a little defensiveness," said Councilman Tom Chambers. "We're here trying to do the right thing."

"At the end of the day we want the same thing. We want balance for our city," said Councilwoman Susan Jones. "We live here because we love it."

Mayor Jim Wood noted that the city has averaged 0.6 percent annual rate of growth in the last 25 years, from 9,937 residents in 1989, to 11,440 today. "It is a small town. We don't have rampant growth."

He said proposals for projects come and go and some of them would likely never get past the Planning Commission or get approval from the City Council.

But Watkins said the number of visitors has grown astronomically. "They're here and have impacts," he said.

Others like former Mayor Kent Mitchell noted the visitor bed tax goes mostly to city parks and recreation programs which are thriving.

The debate over whether Healdsburg is being overwhelmed by visitors was stirred up last year with 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 to similar to one in Sonoma that was narrowly defeated in November, to restrict the size of new hotels and the expansion of existing ones.

Councilman Plass said Monday that Healdsburg has less per capita number of hotel rooms than Sonoma, St. Helena and Calistoga

Last month Healdsburg Citizens for Sustainable Solutions mailed a flyer to 3,400 voting households in the city 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 showed photos of a drought-stricken Russian River and a traffic jam on Healdsburg Avenue.

About 12 percent of households — 395 respondents — returned the eight-question survey centered on growth and development issues.

But on Monday some speakers said the questions in the survey were biased and leading, and the sample was not large enough.

The survey found 77 percent supported a citizens' initiative to limit hotel sizes; 16 percent were against it; and 7 percent were undecided.

Almost half of the respondents said new hotels should be limited to 20 rooms. About one-third said hotels should be restricted to 40 rooms.

Only 21 percent said that enough is being done to preserve Healdsburg's small town character, while 65 percent said not enough is being done.

And two-thirds of the respondents said there is not currently a balance between resident and visitor needs, while 21 percent said there is.

There was 70 percent support for a one-year moratorium on construction due to water shortages and 19 percent were against it.

And 70 percent were against relaxing Healdsburg's voter-approved growth management ordinance, while 14 percent favor easing it.

When it came to parking, 60 percent said more is needed and 27 percent were comfortable with the current amount of parking.

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

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