As an autumn sun set over Sonoma, a chill crept through the city's leafy Plaza, where hundreds gathered to savor one of the last farmers markets of the season.
The scene last week reflected a community content with itself. Or so it seemed.
Sonoma has been roiled by a controversial ballot measure that could make it exceedingly difficult, if not impossible, to build a new hotel in the city or expand a current one beyond 25 rooms.
More broadly, Measure B is viewed as a referendum on the city's future.
"I don't want Sonoma to be Yountville, where it's hotels and tourists and nothing else," Sonoma contractor Bob Baeyen said to friends who were seated on the grass, wine glasses in hand.
"But it's already there! Look at the tasting rooms and real estate offices," said Marsha Copeland, a massage therapist, as she gestured around her.
The pair ended the conversation amicably. But elsewhere, passions over Measure B have led people to storm out of public meetings, frayed longtime friendships and political alliances, sparked allegations of campaign shenanigans and fomented apocalyptic predictions of what will happen if the initiative passes or fails.</CW>
Sonoma voters will decide the issue in a special election Nov. 19, with absentee ballots scheduled to go out a week from Monday.
Sonoma, which has a long history of independence and ambivalence toward the world at large, again is confronting an identity crisis.
Is the city of 10,000 residents too welcoming to tourists? Or not enough? Would capping hotel rooms keep the city's economy humming, or curb growth? Does the measure promote the city's image of itself as genuine and historic? Or stuck in the past? Is the attempted end-around the city's planning process a noble act of direct democracy? Or an abuse of the ballot box?
Such conundrums resonate well beyond the two square miles that encompass Sonoma. Almost all cities struggle to find the right balance between quality of life issues, such as traffic, and generating much-needed revenue, especially in an era of government shutdowns and a still-unfolding economic recovery.
"We have to decide if we want to remain a town, or if we want to become a city. Towns are where people live. Cities are where people make money," retired San Francisco firefighter Dennis King, a longtime Sonoma resident, said as he strolled around the Plaza last week with his daughter and her 5-month-old son.
The Hotel Limitation Measure would cap new hotels or expansion of existing ones to 25rooms unless Sonoma achieves an annual occupancy rate of 80 percent, which the city has never done. In 2012, the rate was just under 65 percent.
The city's Planning Commission would have to determine that a large qualifying hotel project, defined in the initiative as more than 25 rooms, does not "adversely affect the historic, small-town character of Sonoma" prior to issuing a use permit, which is the city's current policy. That approval could be appealed to the City Council, but under the new ordinance, would require a four-fifths' vote for the project to go forward.
Larry Barnett, Measure B's main proponent, said a super-majority is necessary "to ensure that political leaders are absolutely certain they want to take that step."
Critics, however, view the measure as a de-facto ban on new hotels, saying the 80 percent threshhold is unacheivable and hotels under 25 rooms are not economically feasible. A city-commissioned report found that only three market areas achieved an occupancy rate above 80 percent in 2012: New York, San Francisco and Oahu.