Pent-up feelings over a proposed hotel in downtown Sonoma, and over an initiative that would curb such growth, spilled over at Monday's City Council meeting.
The council voted 4-1 to give City Manager Carol Giovanatto the authority to research consultants for help in preparing a report on the impacts of the proposed ballot measure, should proponents succeed in qualifying it for an election.
Many members of the public who spoke Monday, however, wanted to vent about the merits of the initiative, or about the 59-room boutique hotel proposed near the city's Plaza that sparked the controversy.
Joanne Sanders, a former mayor, accused supporters of the proposed ballot measure of having a "vendetta" against developer Darius Anderson.
She singled out Larry Barnett, who also is a former mayor and is now the driving force behind the Preserving Sonoma campaign.
"Heck, he helped write the general plan, and in there was no ban on hotel development. There will be now if we don't act," Sanders told the council.
Barnett responded later in the meeting by saying he was "sorry" to have heard "the inaccurate personal assaults on me today. I'm not really sure what the motivation is for that."
Barnett and the Preserving Sonoma group are seeking changes to the city's general plan that would cap any new hotel, or expansion of an existing one, to 25 rooms unless the city's hotel occupancy rate over the previous calendar year exceeded 80 percent. In 2012, the rate was just under 65 percent.
The group contends that the measure is necessary to protect the city's quality of life from what its members consider to be major hotel development.
Opponents say the measure would stymie economic growth and result in a de facto ban on most hotels by setting an impossibly high occupancy standard.
"I don't think having a petition that is a moratorium is good for business," said Tina Shone, a Sonoma real estate broker.
Jennifer Yankovich, executive director of the Sonoma Valley Chamber of Commerce, informed the council that the group is opposed to the initiative.
"We only have 6 percent vacancy for what we consider large-scale development. If we as a community take a whole sector off the table, it takes away our ability to consider what we want," she said.
But Barnett said he felt certain "that an impartial analysis of the limiting the pace and scale of hotel growth in Sonoma will reveal many benefits that help to preserve our small-town character."
Preserving Sonoma is hosting an event Sunday to kick off its petition drive. The group needs at least 10 percent of the city's registered voters to qualify the measure for a general election, and 15 percent for a special election. The latter could be scheduled earlier but would cost the city an estimated $30,000.
Councilman Tom Rouse, the lone no vote on Giovanatto's request to research consultants for the city's report, said he didn't want staff time or city money to be spent "on something that may not come back to the council."
Barnett assured Rouse that initiative proponents would get the necessary signatures. "You can count on that," he said.
Anderson's project is the only one currently in the city's planning pipeline. In its most recent incarnation, the plans 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. Anderson is the principal of Sonoma Media Investments, which owns The Press Democrat.