A Sonoma group that includes a former mayor of the city is seeking a ballot initiative to limit hotel development, including the controversial Chateau Sonoma &amp; Spa proposed near the Plaza.
The Preserving Sonoma Committee announced it has launched a petition drive to gather enough signatures to qualify the ballot measure for a special election, possibly this fall.
The group is seeking to prevent construction of hotels with more than 25 rooms; it would also bar expanding existing hotels past that same threshold. The limits would stay in place until Sonoma's hotel occupancy rate exceeds 80 percent. In 2012, the rate was just under 65 percent.
Larry Barnett, a former city mayor who served 12 years on the City Council, is leading the effort. He said the city's small-town character is "at risk" because of proposed development.
"In Sonoma, the character and quality of life for residents matters more than the promise of big money. We seem to have to prove that over and over again," he said.
Barnett and other members of the committee, who include Sonoma attorney Bob Edwards and political activist Will Shonbrun, have expressed vocal opposition to developer Darius Anderson's proposal to build a luxury hotel and spa on West Napa Street a half-block from the Plaza.
But Barnett, a former bed-and-breakfast owner, insisted that the committee's efforts do not target a single project. However, Anderson's project is the only one currently in the city's planning process.
"This approach goes well beyond that particular project and envisions a more comprehensive issue, which is the rate of large hotel development in the city," Barnett said.
Mayor Pro-Tem Tom Rouse said Wednesday the motives of the group are obvious to him. "The timing of this petition appears to me to be a shot across the bow to Darius Anderson and his proposed hotel."
Anderson's initial plan for the $27 million project called for a three-story, 59-room hotel, with two restaurants, a health club and spa, event center and 2,800 square feet of retail space.
Based on original estimates, supporters of the project said it would pump $14 million a year into the town economy and fill a need for a full-service hotel on the Plaza. Critics say the development would increase traffic congestion and be a bad fit so close to the city's heart.
Anderson on Wednesday said he has "changed everything, from design, to usage, to square footage" to address community concerns. He would not say whether that includes proposing fewer rooms.
The changes include replacing the project's French theme with one that celebrates writer Jack London. Anderson said he hopes to open a bar at the site called "First Edition," and include some of the artifacts he has collected that are related to the famous author's life and works.
Anderson is a principal of Sonoma Media Investments, which owns The Press Democrat.
He said he doesn't know how he will respond to Barnett's efforts until he sees something in writing from the committee. In general, Anderson said he doesn't believe in "blanket policies that close everything down."
Anderson's project meets zoning and general plan standards and needs only a use permit from the city. As part of that procedure, an environmental impact report must be prepared to address traffic and how the hotel fits into the Plaza area, a process that typically takes about a year, said David Goodison, the city planning director.