The ballot box is a critical vehicle for correcting all kinds of civic maladies, from recalling reprobate politicians to overturning errant government decisions. But it can also be used as an instrument for spreading fear. Such is the case with Measure B in Sonoma.
Proponents of this Nov. 19 ballot measure would have the 10,000 residents of Sonoma believe that the city is in danger of being overrun by tourists and large hotels, so much so that voters need to approve an initiative prohibiting the expansion of existing large hotels and banning new inns of more than 25 rooms.
Worse, they give the impression that the city's existing general plan, zoning regulations and planning processes are insufficient — or are not to be trusted — to properly review and decide on a hotel proposal when and if one comes forward.
Nothing could be further from the truth. As Mayor Ken Brown, an outspoken opponent of Measure B, points out, no new large hotels have been built in Sonoma for 13 years, the city has a reputation for rigidity in its land-use regulations, and no one is complaining about anything the city has approved in years.
"Show me one (inappropriate) thing we have done," says Brown. "It's just not there."
Moreover, history has shown that when projects have been proposed that are out of scale with the community's character, they've encountered intense scrutiny, including the campaign 14 years ago to reject the proposed 105-room Rosewood resort on a hillside overlooking the city.
If approved, Measure B would prohibit new hotel construction and expansions beyond 25 rooms unless the city reaches an occupancy rate of 80 percent for an entire year, a level that has not been achieved in Sonoma's history and, opponents note, is unlikely to ever be achieved. Plus, if such a project is ever approved and is appealed to the City Council, it could only receive final approval with a four-fifths vote of the council.
Opponents say that the regulations would increase the likelihood that larger inns would be built outside city limits, beyond the city's urban growth boundary. Meanwhile, it also would increase the likelihood that what limited locations exist in the community for possible new hotels would be taken up with strip malls or other retail projects that would have a far more negative impact on traffic and congestion problems than hotels.
It's no secret that Measure B was crafted primarily in response to one project — a proposal for a 59-room luxury hotel on West Napa Street a half-block from the Plaza, on the site of the Sonoma Index-Tribune. The project, which has since been withdrawn, was proposed by Darius Anderson, a Sonoma Valley homeowner, Sacramento lobbyist and principal of Sonoma Media Investments, which owns the Sonoma Index-Tribune and this newspaper.
But Measure B has more far-reaching impacts than this one project. Opponents note that it could have a chilling effect on the city's tourism economy, including the hotel tax income that constitutes 25 percent of the city's revenue.
Moreover, other cities are watching closely what happens in Sonoma. If approved, a similar measure could be proposed in Healdsburg.
We have long held that the best way to govern the look and feel of a community is through the planning process and through the development of such key documents as the general plan. Measure B seeks to bypass all of that and adopt stringent new rules on hotels, rules that were designed by a small group of people, without input from those in the business community, the elected leaders and most of the citizens of Sonoma.