A controversial ballot measure that would limit hotel growth in Sonoma appeared headed for defeat Tuesday night, deflating proponents who argued that without such restrictions the city of 10,000 is in danger of being overrun by development and tourists.
What election officials called semifinal official results showed Measure B losing by just 92 votes, with 51.3 percent of ballots cast rejecting the measure.
Of the 3,623 ballots cast, 1,853 went against Measure B, according to Sonoma County's Registrar of Voters.
Supporting the Hotel Limitation Measure were 1,761 Sonoma voters, or 48.7 percent.
An unknown number of provisional ballots, as well as mail-in ballots dropped off at polling places, are yet to be counted. Neither backers nor opponents of Measure B expected the remaining votes to change the outcome.
"In the end, voters concluded that Sonoma doesn't have a hotel problem," said Nancy Simpson, campaign coordinator for Protect Sonoma, which opposed the measure. "What we should do is work together to protect the community we love."
Larry Barnett, a former mayor of the city who sank $25,000 of his own money to back Measure B, said the debate over Measure B improved the city, despite the outcome.
"I'm disappointed, but I think that we brought an issue before the community that has changed the dialogue about tourism and growth in town," Barnett said. "The whole idea of an initiative was to give the community a chance to explore the issue and have their say."
Measure B would make it exceedingly difficult to build a hotel with more than 25 rooms in Sonoma or expand an existing one beyond that threshold. The measure was viewed as a referendum on the city's future and was closely monitored in other communities that struggle to find a balance between tourism and services catering to locals.
Proponents said the initiative would help preserve Sonoma's quality of life, while opponents argued it would chill economic growth. Campaign spending on the ballot measure topped $150,000, likely making it the most expensive ballot issue campaign in the city's history. Tuesday's special election was expected to cost the city of Sonoma between $28,000 and $33,000.
At a jubilant gathering of Measure B opponents, Simpson credited a get-out-the-vote effort for the group's early success Tuesday night. She said volunteers were "all about making sure our community is right on this."
Also in attendance was developer Darius Anderson, whose proposal to build a 59-room luxury hotel on West Napa Street a half-block from the plaza sparked the debate.
Anderson said if early results held and Measure B was defeated, he would submit hotel plans to the city after meeting with project opponents to discuss their concerns. He said Barnett would be among those he would reach out to.
"We are not opposed to changing the design again," Anderson said.
Moments before the first election results were released Tuesday night, Barnett told supporters that the measure's passage would usher in a "movement" that would lead to better planning on a regional basis.
"Otherwise, it's project after project, battle after battle, and exhaustion after exhaustion for these communities," said Barnett, a former bed-and-breakfast owner.
As of Monday, the county's registrar of voters reported that 3,623 ballots had been received out of the 4,738 issued, for a return rate of 60 percent. Of the votes cast, 2,887 were mailed in, while only 736 voters went to the polls. The city has 6,457 registered voters.