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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 & 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.

Anderson did not say when he plans to submit revised plans to the city.

Barnett made the case that capping hotel rooms in Sonoma would make it easier for the city to fill those it already has. He also criticized city leaders for creating a Tourism Improvement District last year that levies an additional 2 percent tax on lodgings, ostensibly to fund more efforts to attract visitors.

Barnett said city leaders are "constantly chasing their own tails to capture a return on their investments in hotels."

Barnett contends that the 80 percent occupancy rate envisioned in the proposed ballot measure -- which has yet to be drafted -- is achievable, and that the committee's efforts don't amount to a ban on larger-scale hotel development for as long as the ordinance is in effect.

Barnett said he was able to surpass that threshold in 2000 when he owned the Thistle Dew Inn, which has six rooms. He sold the business in 2003.

Countywide, the hotel occupancy rate has exceeded 80 percent twice in the past five years -- in last August and September. Last year's overall occupancy rate of 68.4 percent was the highest since 2008, according to Smith Travel Research.

Barnett informed the City Council of the committee's intentions to seek a ballot measure at the council's Monday night meeting.

The group also issued a press release listing Chateau Sonoma and two other sites where hotel projects are "proposed or being considered right now." It listed them as the former site of Sonoma Truck and Auto at Broadway and MacArthur, and an expansion at the Inn at Sonoma on Broadway near Patten Street.

Goodison said he has had two meetings with representatives from the Kessler Collection, a Florida-based company that specializes in boutique and luxury hotels, regarding the former auto location site. He said the group has not submitted any proposals.

Kessler representatives declined comment Wednesday.

The eight-room expansion at the Inn at Sonoma, which will push the total to 27 rooms, already has received the necessary approvals from the city Planning Commission. That occurred in December at a meeting at which there was no opposition voiced.

The inn's owner, retired attorney Dan Parks, expressed dismay Wednesday that his establishment would be viewed as large-scale development under the rules proposed by Barnett's committee.

"I don't think of 27 rooms as a big hotel, but now I'm classified as that," he said.

The city's largest hotel, The Lodge at Sonoma Resort & Spa on Broadway at Napa and Leveroni roads at the southern edge of the city, easily would exceed the rules proposed by the Preserving Sonoma group given that it has 174 rooms and four suites.

Foes of large-scale hotel development in Sonoma have had success in the past with the initiative process, most notably in 1999, when the city's voters overwhelmingly rejected a $62 million, 105-room resort that had been proposed on a hillside that forms the city's backdrop. The 60-acre site now includes the city's Overlook Trail.

Ken Brown signed the petition seeking the ballot measure while he was serving on the City Council. He's now mayor.

Brown on Wednesday said he has "no opinion one way or another" about Anderson's proposed development, saying he will reserve judgment until the plans come to the City Council.

To qualify for a special election, petitioners must gather 1,017 signatures, or 15 percent of the city's 6,782 registered voters. Barnett predicted that will be "very easy."

The City Council would then have the choice of adopting the ordinance or ordering a special election no later than 103 days from when the petition is reported.

The cost of the special election, estimated to be between $20,322 and $33,870, would be borne by the city.

You can reach Staff Writer Derek Moore at 521-5336 or derek.moore@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @deadlinederek.

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