Healdsburg City Council to discuss limits on future downtown hotels

The City Council will hold a public discussion Monday on limiting future lodging near the downtown plaza.|

The standoff over hotel development in downtown Healdsburg is returning this week to the City Council, which is set to take up a disputed proposal put forward by lodging opponents that would effectively block future projects in an area surrounding the central plaza.

The issue, part of a broader debate over the cost and benefit of Wine County tourism for Healdsburg residents, stems in part from the recent multi-million-dollar sale of three downtown commercial properties that high-end developer David Wilhelm eyed for a potential hotel.

Three residents opposing the idea banded together in a group called Residents for Balance Downtown and have pressed their claim that any additional downtown hotels would diminish Healdsburg’s small-town charm.

“We feel it’s reached a tipping point,” said Bruce Abramson, a 28-year Healdsburg resident, part-time mortgage broker and one of the group’s founders. “This plaza and the downtown are the crown jewels of our community that everybody loves. We’re concerned that this can be eroded, the small-town look and feel, if there are more hotels built.”

Craig Ramsey, a longtime tech executive and Shiloh Estates resident outside of Santa Rosa, is the new owner of the two downtown parking lots after spending $7.5 million on them in September. The purchase also includes an adjacent building with five commercial spaces that includes the One World Fair Trade gift shop and Copperfield’s Book’s.

While Ramsey maintains a business relationship on the properties with Wilhelm, who developed the exclusive Mayacama Golf Club and nearby home sites, he said it’s “highly unlikely” a hotel will eventually be built in the parking area. Instead, he intends to improve the look of the lots - possibly in collaboration with the city - and has also entered into a partnership with local restaurateur Dustin Valette for a new dining spot in three of the five plaza-facing spaces. Copperfield’s and kitchenware store Plaza Gourmet would remain while the One World gift shop and Fabrications fabric store would relocate to make room.

“We’re trying to create something that people can go in and have dinner and spend $25 - not $200 or $300,” said Ramsey, who previously owned a vineyard in Healdsburg. “I’m not a developer, I’m a software person - I’m not interested in putting in a hotel. I have zero interest.”

Healdsburg, a city of about 12,000 people, and one of Wine Country’s hottest destinations, will have about 180 hotel rooms in the downtown corridor once all current projects are completed, according to the Healdsburg tourism improvement district. That’s on top of 245 rooms that exist in others parts of the city. An additional 430 rooms are in the works across four more projects at various stages of construction or planning outside of the plaza district - making for a grand total of roughly 850 hotel rooms.

The citizen group, co-founded by residents Chris Herrod and Gail Jonas, seeks to prevent any future hotel construction in the 3-by-4 block downtown area through changes to the code. On the suggestion of Councilman Joe Naujokas, the council will take up the idea in its chambers Monday at 5 p.m.. At stake are two central questions: Whether the city should require future hotels in the plaza district to obtain an added layer of approval, or if banning them altogether makes sense.

Councilwoman Brigette Mansell, who will begin her tenure as mayor of Healdsburg this week, said the hotel issue is a microcosm of the larger challenges around tourism that face the city - and Sonoma County as a whole. Traffic and parking downtown, and the rising cost of housing are all involved.

In August, the City Council unanimously approved an ordinance limiting the number of new wine tasting rooms downtown, a move seen as an attempt to strike a balance between the benefits of tourism and the desires and overall livability of the city for full-time residents. A cityscape dominated by any industry, she said, including the county’s signature wine business, could hinder the right kind and amount of growth, as well as interest from visitors.

“The city is not viable for tourists if we don’t have a variety of experiences that they can have,” said Mansell. “We’re trying to maintain a diversity and vitality of economics.”

The debate over downtown hotels has echoes of a pitched battle in Sonoma - another tony Wine Country destination - where residents took up the issue in a 2013 ballot measure that proposed to ban new sites of more than 25 rooms and limit the expansion of existing accommodations. With almost 4,000 votes cast, the ordinance failed 52 percent to 48 - a difference of 124 votes.

In Healdsburg, discussion over Ramsey’s new properties hearkens back to 2013 when a luxury development group called The Kessler Collection submitted a plan for a 75-room, five-story hotel on the site. Due to a combination of opponents’ clamor and the working design exceeding existing density and height restrictions, the plan never advanced for a Planning Commission vote.

Kessler abandoned the project by the end of that year after resolving that a smaller hotel was not financially viable. Abramson and his fellow Residents for Balance Downtown had not mobilized at that time, but the prospect helped put the issue on their radar. They are poised to make their objection to any new downtown hotels clear on Monday night.

“We’re tourism impacted. We understand that, we accept that,” said Abramson, who as a member of the city’s community housing committee is a vocal figure in Healdsburg development issues. “But we don’t want to lose who we are. We feel the downtown and plaza is wonderful the way it is, and we support a mix of retail, office space and housing in those districts - not hotels.”

You can reach Staff Writer Kevin Fixler at 707-521-5336.

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