Fifteen people sat around a long table in the Springs neighborhood of Sonoma on a recent Tuesday night. A plate of chocolate cupcakes and a bowl of tangerines rested on the table, which was covered in white cloth. A decorated Christmas tree rotated in a corner of the room.
This was no festive holiday gathering, though. The neighbors had come together to discuss a proposal floated at a public meeting two weeks earlier and to hash out ways to prevent it from becoming a reality.
“I am praying to God this is not a done deal,” Springs resident Veronica Napoles said.
At the earlier Nov. 15 public meeting, and a Spanish-language version the following night, the idea of a public-private partnership to develop a community plaza in a long-neglected, unincorporated area north of downtown Sonoma was proposed.
The plaza would be located in the Springs neighborhood, just north of the historic Boyes Hot Springs Post Office on Highway 12, near the center of a 2-mile corridor that runs through Boyes, Fetters Hot Springs and Agua Caliente.
Though the plan is nothing more than a loose concept right now, it has quickly met organized opposition. Those who attended the Nov. 29 brainstorming session had concerns about traffic, use of public funding and talk of an underground parking garage.
But their skepticism had more to do with who is behind the proposal.
On the private side of this hypothetical public-private partnership is Ken Mattson, who along with his wife, Stacy, — and their many limited liability companies — have purchased more than 60 properties in the Sonoma Valley since they showed up on the radar about seven years ago.
Many of those parcels sit dormant or in a state of semi-repair, leading to widespread suspicions about the Mattsons’ goals.
If people are discussing development issues in Sonoma these days, Ken Mattson is probably the elephant in the room.
“If it was someone else — let’s say it was some regular person that cared about the community who said, ‘I want to build a plaza’ — yeah, we would probably take the time to listen to them,” resident Mary Samson acknowledged at the house meeting. “Because they would maybe have finished what they started.”
Mattson did not respond to requests for comment, but the project manager for the Springs Plaza Development Team, Daniel Crowley, emailed a statement Monday.
“We’re pleased with how productive the public meetings were last month,” Crowley wrote. “ … As we’re still in the listening stage to determine what the community views as the best use for a public plaza, it’s premature to comment regarding plans for the site. The feedback gathered from the community will guide our plans and the next phase of this process. We look forward to working together with the community on next steps.”
Mattson did speak for slightly less than two minutes at the Nov. 15 public meeting, telling the audience that he understands their concerns while stressing, like Crowley, that any ideas presented that night would be recorded and taken into consideration.
“I want to be very clear, there is no predisposed idea that we have set in our mind that this is how it’s going to look, and we’re just going to try and navigate to that point,” Mattson said.
To many who were in attendance that night, it wasn’t nearly enough to engender confidence.
“Without clarifying what he intends to do with the building, it doesn’t make sense for us to be ‘open’ about the plaza,” said Angela Marino, who attended both public sessions. “The problem is that we have no confidence in the developer, nor in the developer-county relationship.”