In its recent editorial, The Press Democrat took a position against Measure B in Sonoma, which, if passed, limits the size of new hotels to 25 rooms until the city's annual occupancy rate exceeds 80 percent ("No on B: A solution in search of a problem," Sunday).
The editorial incorrectly stated that no new hotels have been built in Sonoma in 13 years, but two successful hotels, a six- and 18-room hotel have been built. The editorial glosses over the prospect of a 59-room hotel near the Plaza, saying its application has been withdrawn although it can easily be resubmitted. Finally, the editors dismiss community concerns about the risk of over-commercialization. Perhaps being located in downtown Santa Rosa distorts editorial perception; most of us who have lived in Sonoma for many years have witnessed profoundly disturbing changes in neighboring Wine Country towns.
Change is a fact of life, and supporters of Measure B accept that truth. However, setting limits on commercial development of all types is perfectly normal; development codes and zoning ordinances specifically address what uses, sizes, masses, limits, stipulations, requirements and prohibitions pertain to applications. We see no reason why, among all types of development, hotels and their size should be exempt from regulation. It's called planning.
The initiative process is protected by California's constitution. When voters conclude that those in political office fail to keep the public's interest at the forefront of decision-making, it's the citizens' right to make a course correction. A council majority that waxes poetic on "the wisdom of free markets," "the evils of government regulation" and loyalty to "the process in place" does not inspire confidence that protecting the public interest is a high priority.
Relying on demands by government for additional revenue as the excuse to back development betrays a lack of leadership's creativity and innovation.
Unregulated hotel development produces unpredictable boom and bust cycles, risks the viability of existing lodging establishments and, in the case of Sonoma, erodes the context and fabric of our historic city. Should that occur, the qualities that make Sonoma an attractive place to live and visit will vanish. As Sonoma architect Ned Forrest has noted, "What we enjoy are some remnants of genuine authenticity. The 'luxury' and 'exclusivity' people find here is this: Sonoma is not at all like where they live; it is like the place they wished they lived."
While feeling more empowered by advancing information technology, the public feels less empowered by government, still largely operating as it did in the early 20th century, not to mention the 19th. Information that was previously restricted to "experts" is now widely available to anyone with a smart phone, mass media channels are being usurped by the ordinary public using social networks, opinions by the millions are followed by millions on Twitter. By comparison, government is widely perceived as cumbersome, unresponsive, too easily swayed by monied interests and insulated from the public it is supposed to serve.
The embrace of Measure B by Sonoma's citizens indicates a powerful desire to directly contribute to critical decision-making in the community. This populist outpouring is in part reaction to a remarkable concentration of wealth and power in relatively few hands. Despite the generosity of those of great means, the public remains suspicious, conflicted about its dependence on the wealthy and frustrated by its growing sense of powerlessness. Hotel development and tourism are both economic and social issues that have stimulated a deep and challenging exploration of power, influence and decision-making.