About 150 people who packed a Sonoma church Thursday night heard advocates on both sides of a controversial hotel limitation measure describe it as a boon for the town, or a disaster.

"It's potentially the most damaging initiative to ever come before this city," said Bill Blum, general manager of MacArthur Place Hotel.

Sonoma furniture maker Ed Clay, however, described the measure as a way to prevent the city of 10,000 from becoming another Napa Valley or Healdsburg.

"Sonoma is one of the last places that has not been inundated with too much tourism," Clay said.

The two men were on opposite sides of a four-person panel that laid out the arguments for and against the so-called Hotel Limitation Measure, which would cap new hotels or expansion of existing ones in Sonoma to 25 rooms unless the city achieves an annual occupancy rate of 80 percent, which the city has never done.

Measure B will be decided by voters in a special election on Nov. 19, with absentee ballots scheduled to go out Oct. 21.

The measure's potential effect on the city's economy, traffic, development planning process and overall quality of life were the focus of the 90-minute forum, which was held at the First Congregational Church on West Spain Street and sponsored by the Sonoma Valley Chamber of Commerce.

Blum was joined by Steve Page, general manager of the Sonoma Raceway, in opposing the measure. Supporting it were Clay and Larry Barnett, who used to own a bed and breakfast in the city and is a former mayor.

One of the most interesting exchanges revolved around the question of the measure's potential effects on future commercial development in Sonoma, and whether it would be good or bad to circumvent the city's current planning process.

Clay said the measure only addresses hotels, and that "there's a process in place that works" to prevent strip malls, mini-marts and other undesirable projects.

But if there is process that works, Page argued, then Measure B essentially isn't necessary.

"When it comes to hotels, the voice of the citizens and of the City Council is going to be taken away," Page said.

Barnett, the measure's main backer, said city leaders in the future could seek to amend the measure if they choose.

Mayor Ken Brown, who sat in the audience, stood up abruptly at one point and walked out of the room, obviously upset at Clay's argument that developers have an unfair advantage in the process and that citizens "always find themselves fighting rear-guard actions."

Brown, who is against Measure B, said, "It would have been counter-productive and impolite of me to yell, 'bull ... .' And you can quote me on that."

The project that sparked all the fuss — developer Darius Anderson's plan for a 59-room luxury hotel on West Napa Street — was barely mentioned, and not by name.

Anderson, whose company, Kenwood Investments, is providing financial backing to Measure B opponents, is a principal of Sonoma Media Investments, which owns The Press Democrat.

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