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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.

The hotel limitation measure hit a nerve in a city that has struggled to define its place in Wine Country pretty much since American settlers seized the town in 1846 and proclaimed the California Republic — only to have the U.S. government claim it back 25 days later.

The city relies heavily on tourism, deriving most of its general fund revenue from transit occupancy taxes, or bed taxes. Tasting rooms have proliferated downtown, and the city is regularly featured in travel magazines as a destination hot spot.

But concerns that Sonoma is at risk of losing its small-town feel fueled new regulations for formula stores — including a ban on large-scale restaurant chains on the plaza — and debate on whether new restrictions are needed for tasting rooms. Measure B was part of the same conversation.

The initiative would cap new hotels or expansion of existing ones at 25 rooms 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, a four-fifths' vote would be required for the project to go forward.

Sonoma web designer Kathy Aanestad said after she voted for the measure Tuesday night that she is "afraid Sonoma is going to turn into a hustle-bustle of a city."

Aanestad's wife, however, said she voted against the measure because she felt the city's market forces already limit what can be built there.

"If the numbers aren't there to support a larger-than-25-room hotel, they're not going to build them," said Veda Lewis, a state planner.

Nancy Rasmussen said she voted against the measure because she said Sonoma could use more places for visitors to stay.

Rasmussen, who works in a tasting room, said people often tell her they had to stay in Vallejo or Fairfield and drive to the city.

"That takes away money from businesses on the plaza," she said.

Several voters Tuesday night said they believed Measure B was not about economics or quality-of-life issues at all, but about Anderson and his hotel project.

Anderson scaled down his original plans for Chateau Sonoma Hotel & Spa, which in its early incarnation included two restaurants, a health club and spa, an event center and 2,800 square feet of retail space. But the smaller design still failed to mollify critics, who said the hotel would worsen traffic congestion at an already-busy intersection on the plaza and not fit with the surrounding area.

Anderson, who has a home just outside Sonoma city limits, is a Sacramento lobbyist and principal of Sonoma Media Investments, which owns The Press Democrat. His commercial and residential holdings in Sonoma and Sonoma Valley alone total more than $15 million, according to records at the Sonoma County Clerk-Recorder-Assessor's Office. The holdings include the Fifth Street East estate where he lives, a 75-acre spread in Kenwood and Ramekins Culinary School, Event Center and Inn in Sonoma.

David Dunham, a merchant seaman who lives in Sonoma, said he supported Measure B because he's "leery of guys who have their fingers in a lot of different pies."

Anderson said his goal is to do things in Sonoma that "everybody will be proud of."

Anderson's company, Kenwood Investments, helped bankroll Protect Sonoma, which raised $80,191 and spent $89,191 to defeat Measure B, according to the most recent campaign finance records. That included $37,556 in non-monetary contributions.

Records show Protect Sonoma took in an additional $6,500 in last-minute contributions from three wineries: DeLoach Vineyards, $3,000; a.k.a Wines LLC, $2,500; and Ledson Winery, $1,000.

Preserving Sonoma, a group started by Barnett to advocate for the measure, had total contributions for the year of $48,446. That included the $25,000 loan from Barnett.

The group has spent $57,874, mostly on legal fees related to drafting the proposed ordinance.