A new Sonoma organization describing itself as a broad citizens group opposed to a voter initiative to cap hotel development is getting its seed money from the developer whose controversial project could be blocked by the proposed ballot measure.
Nancy Simpson, the campaign coordinator for Protect Sonoma, which is being formed as a political action committee, said the ballot measure is not needed because the city already has adequate controls on hotel development. "This is not about any particular project," Simpson said. "This is about Sonoma as a whole."
She acknowledged, however, that Darius Anderson and his firm, Kenwood Investments, are paying her to manage the organization. Anderson is the developer of a proposed 59-room hotel near the city Plaza that has become a flashpoint in the debate over hotel development.
Neither Anderson nor Kenwood Investments was identified in last week's press release announcing the new committee and its members, nor are they referenced on the group's website or Facebook page.
"This is seed money to start a group that was starting anyway," said Simpson, co-owner of a wine consulting business. She would not disclose her compensation or the amount of Anderson's contribution.
Neither Anderson nor Bill Hooper, the investment firm's president, returned calls seeking comment this week. Anderson also is a principal of Sonoma Media Investments, which owns The Press Democrat.
The proposed ballot measure would cap any new hotel, or expansion of an existing one, at 25rooms unless the city's hotel occupancy rate over the previous calendar year exceeded 80percent. In 2012, the rate was just under 65 percent.
Simpson, who is Sonoma Valley's designee to the county Landmarks Commission, said residents already have a say about what kind of hotel development they want in town. "We have a process in place that evaluates every project that comes into the city of Sonoma on a case-by-case basis. It's based on the general plan," she said.
Other critics have said the measure would stymie economic growth in Sonoma and result in a de facto ban on most hotels by setting an impossibly high occupancy standard.
Sonoma has never experienced an annualized occupancy rate of 80 percent, according to City Manager Carol Giovanatto. She cited a national travel survey that found only three U.S. locales have achieved that rate — San Francisco, New York City and Waikiki Beach.
The initiative effort is driven by a group called Preserving Sonoma, which is led by Larry Barnett, a former bed-and-breakfast owner and mayor of the city.
He said Wednesday that Preserving Sonoma has gathered about 600signatures in support of the ballot measure. That's about half the number of registered voters' signatures needed to qualify the measure for a special election.
Barnett said disclosure that Kenwood Investments is assisting the opposition group "furthers my opinion that this really doesn't represent a true grass-roots effort if it's being funded by someone who is building a hotel that is outside the size and scale of what is being contemplated for our initiative."
Barnett described Preserving Sonoma as a "100 percent genuine grass-roots group" that has no paid staff.
Campaign finance reports filed with the city show that Barnett loaned the group $20,000.
Barnett said the group also has taken in about $4,000 in donations, the largest of which — $1,000 — was contributed by Sonoma psychologist Barbara Sachs-Senn, reports show.