Developer drops plans for controversial Sonoma boutique hotel in favor of housing
Faced with a lengthy approval process and unrelenting opposition from a citizens’ group, developers have dropped plans to build a boutique hotel project northeast of the Sonoma Plaza.
Caymus Development Group of Sonoma said they are eliminating a proposed 30-room hotel, restaurant and bakery and will concentrate instead on building more housing than originally planned on the 3.4 acre site.
Dropping the commercial portion, they said, will allow for additional units over the 27 condominiums and five single-family homes they were proposing. Under the city’s general plan there could be as many as 70 residential units on the site, but the developer declined to say if they would seek the maximum amount.
They portrayed their decision as driven by the urgent need for housing in the region. They also downplayed opposition to the proposed hotel, in a neighborhood some call Sonoma’s “backyard” - a collection of Little League ballfields, a senior center, a veterans hall and Depot Park that offer a respite of sorts from the bustling tourist-dominated plaza.
The hotel on First Street East was dropped “because housing is a humanitarian crisis,” said Caymus executive Ed Routhier. “We need to step up and do everything we can.”
Opponents, represented by the group Protect Sonoma, cheered the decision to drop the hotel and said they have always advocated for a medium-density residential project that blends in with the existing neighborhood.
“Let it continue to be Sonoma’s backyard,” said Sheila O’Neill, spokesperson for Protect Sonoma, which grew out of a successful effort about 20 years ago to stop a luxury hotel from being built on a hill overlooking the town.
“I believe they realized the grass-roots opposition in Sonoma was going to be an expensive and time-consuming hurdle to try to push through,” O’Neill said.
Mayor Rachel Hundley said Caymus probably took note of the ongoing struggle over a separate hotel project on West Napa Street.
“Combined with the pushback from the neighbors, it probably aided their decision to focus on residential,” she said.
“I’m happy with the decision they made,” she said. “It will have a more positive experience on all sides moving forward.”
The other controversial hotel project referenced by the mayor is off West Napa Street with a proposed 62 rooms, spa and 80-seat restaurant with 115 parking spaces. It has served as a lightning rod for the ongoing debate over whether tourists and traffic are overwhelming Sonoma.
An earlier iteration of the hotel sparked a ballot initiative to effectively limit the size of new hotels to 25 rooms, but it was narrowly defeated by voters in 2013.
That project is proposed by Kenwood Investments, whose founder, Darius Anderson, is managing partner of Sonoma Media Investments, which owns The Press Democrat.
Sonoma has a limited amount of hotel rooms, hotel proponents note, and it is the “day trippers,” not necessarily the overnight guests, who create greater impacts, such as traffic and parking woes, they claim. Also, hotel stays generate valuable “bed tax” revenues for the city, Routhier said.
The West Napa project was sent back by the City Council for further study in August after opponents successfully appealed the Planning Commission’s approval of its environmental impact report.
Routhier said the commercial elements of the project, including the hotel, would have required two to three more years to get approval from the City Council and would have been subjected to additional appeal by opponents.
“We don’t think that’s fair to the community that desperately needs housing,” he said.
Routhier said that within the next three months Caymus will be ready to present specifics on a re-tooled design.
Under the city’s housing regulations, 20 percent of the units approved for the site would have to be designated “affordable” for families with limited incomes. Routhier said the development could provide homes for workers, families and seniors.
“We’re looking to expand to have a broad mix of housing to accommodate all individuals and families on the economic spectrum,” Routhier said.
Caymus Development Group has built or refurbished more than 1,000 homes in cities that include San Francisco, Sacramento, Truckee and in two residential neighborhoods in Sonoma.
Bill Jasper, former president and CEO of Dolby Labs and a principal in Sonoma Media Investments - owner of The Press Democrat - is one of the investors on the First Street East project.
You can reach Staff Writer Clark Mason at 707-521-5214 or firstname.lastname@example.org. On Twitter@clarkmas.