Procedural blunder forces Healdsburg to reconsider 2018 ordinance; new hotel project’s legality

The Healdsburg City Council will determine both the fate of the ordinance and the future of 400 Healdsburg Ave., the latest proposed hotel project from Piazza Hospitality.|

Five years after passing a milestone ordinance to control the number of hotel rooms in downtown Healdsburg, the City Council needs a do-over.

That unusual step will be taken today by the council during its 6 p.m. meeting at City Hall.

The emergency repair work was necessitated by a series of “really embarrassing screw-ups that were really impactful,” said Council member Chris Herrod.

The passage of Ordinance 1181 in December 2018, banned future hotels along the city’s central plaza, and also capped the number of rooms developers could build downtown.

But the ordinance has likely been rendered invalid following a recently discovered procedural gaffe by the city.

Once approved, new regulations must be announced, or “noticed,” by the city within 15 days. In what was, by all accounts, an honest mistake, it took Healdsburg 24 days to post notice of Ordinance 1181’s approval in 2018.

Today, the original ordinance will be presented to City Council for re-adoption and proper noticing.

“Staff will recommend that the policy be approved as an urgency ordinance that will be effective immediately on Sept. 18,” the city of Healdsburg announced in a Sept. 7 Facebook post alerting residents about the issue and the meeting.

How the five-member council votes will determine both the fate of the ordinance — its adoption again isn’t a sure thing — and the future of 400 Healdsburg Ave., the latest-proposed hotel project from Piazza Hospitality, which operates three other hotels in the city’s downtown core: Hotel Healdsburg, H2Hotel and Harmon Guest House.

Healdsburg’s failure to properly “notice” Ordinance 1181 was not its only blunder during that period.

As first reported by The Healdsburg Tribune, the city signed off on Piazza Hospitality’s H4 project along Healdsburg Avenue on Jan. 16, 2019 – the same day Ordinance 1181 took effect.

Blown deadline

Though the measure was applicable at the time, city officials and Piazza Hospitality proceeded as if its newest ordinance did not apply to the project, and shepherded the proposed development through the city’s design review process.

That came to an abrupt halt, though, when the Tribune pointed out that Piazza had missed the approval date, and should be subject to Ordinance 1181, which limits new lodging projects to five or fewer rooms.

The 400 Healdsburg Ave. proposal, as described on Piazza Hospitality’s website, “will be a very small boutique hotel with a total of 16 rooms.”

Critics have noted that those 16 units are suites, and that the project really entails 37 bedrooms and 34 bathrooms.

Regardless, the proposed hotel, as presently constituted, would not be permitted under Ordinance 1181.

While investigating the Tribune’s claim that Piazza had missed its deadline, Healdsburg officials discovered the snafu — “that Ordinance No. 1181 was published later than required by the Government Code,” according to the agenda previewing council’s upcoming meeting.

“The more we tug on this thread, the more surprised I’ve been by what has unraveled,” said Healdsburg Mayor Ariel Kelley, who was first elected to City Council in 2020.

She noted that there’s been extensive turnover at City Hall since 2018.

“We have a new clerk, a new city manager, a new planning director,” she said. “So, a lot of the paper trail that we’re examining is a very interesting look into a world that many of us were not involved in.”

Of the five council members to vote in 2018 on Ordinance 1181, only Vice Mayor David Hagele remains. The ordinance passed 4-1, with Hagele casting the lone dissenting vote.

This time around, council will consider an “urgency ordinance” and a “back-up ordinance,” officials said.

Both patches are substantively identical to Ordinance 1181.

The “urgency” version, which would require a four-fifths vote, would take effect immediately upon the measure’s adoption.

The “back-up ordinance” could pass with a simple majority, but wouldn’t go into effect until Nov. 1.

High stakes for local developer

While Piazza executives didn’t respond Friday to requests for comment, it’s not hard to see which outcome they might prefer.

Adopting the urgency ordinance as written, according to the city agenda for today’s meeting, “will mean that all hotel projects for which an application has been deemed complete – including Piazza – by Sept. 18, 2023, will be exempt from the ordinance.”

But that four-fifths threshold is a high bar.

While council has considerable latitude to amend the ordinance, it’s also possible that Piazza’s H4 project will be forced to abide by the new rules.

That wouldn’t break Brigette Mansell’s heart.

She was Healdsburg’s mayor when Ordinance 1181 was adopted.

Mansell has been beating the drums on social media to get her fellow Healdsburg residents to attend this evening’s meeting at City Hall, 401 Grove St.

“Let’s not pretend this is a done deal,” she said, referring to the H4 project. “Because it’s not.”

Mansell objects to Piazza’s depiction of the project as a “very small boutique hotel,” which she said is “erroneous and pretty deceptive.”

And, she said it upset her that Piazza was able, with help from some city officials, to keep the project under the radar.

“It was a little crazy that 2½ years after the ordinance had passed, we found out” that Piazza had a hotel in the pipeline, she said.

Lack of transparency

Kelley was also troubled by how that process unfolded.

Referring to numerous public meetings held during 2018 to talk about Ordinance 1181, she said, “never was it publicly discussed that this project was in development.”

Kelley said that at the time the Planning Commission was voting on the ordinance, there were members of the commission who knew about the project, and some of its members who did not. So they were making policy with a different set of facts, she added.

“We also know that to be true of the City Council — some members knew about the project, and others didn’t. They were making sweeping policy decisions without being provided the same information from city staff,” she said.

Kelley added that she found that lack of transparency “incredibly upsetting and disappointing.”

It was unclear to her which way the council would vote.

More clear, she said, is where the majority of Healdsburg residents stand on the subject of downtown hotels.

She shared results of a poll commissioned by the city in 2017 or 2018 – Kelley wasn’t sure which – and conducted by company FM3 Research. Over 70% of respondents said they believed that “the growth and development of hotels in Healdsburg” was happening “too fast,” with 45% saying it was happening “much too fast,” and 25% checking the reply “somewhat too fast.”

Since 2018, an additional 436 hotel rooms have been built or approved in the city, by her count – not including Piazza’s latest proposal.

“We don’t need any more hotels in this city” said Mansell. “We need housing for people.”

Let the people speak’

Before he won a seat on City Council in 2022, Herrod said he was part of a citizen’s group that helped “spearhead” Ordinance 1181. He said it did bug him that “we were going through this ordinance process and this prospective project wasn’t mentioned.”

On the other hand, he said, “I guess we were pretty damn naïve” to not suspect Piazza had a project in the pipeline.

After all, Herrod added, “they own that property, and they build hotels. That’s what they do.”

Herrod believes Ordinance 1181 is “still in sync” with the community, and that anti-hotel sentiment “may be even stronger now than it was then. Because when I was running (for council), it was very strong.”

But just last week, he said, he was still grappling with how he might vote.

“I think that Piazza was kind of led along by the city, after they were supposedly approved,” he said.

He’s not sure Healdsburg needs another hotel, but he admires the “forward-thinking design” of the H4 project, especially its “inspired” water-recycling program.

“I think they put a lot of really great ideas into this project,” he said.

Describing himself as “sympathetic” to each side, Herrod said he’d “really worked hard to be as open-minded as possible about this.

“I think there’s going to be a ton of public comment,” at this meeting, “and that’s okay. Let the people speak.”

You can reach Staff Writer Jennifer Sawhney at 707-521-5346 or On Twitter @sawhney_media.

UPDATED: Please read and follow our commenting policy:

  • This is a family newspaper, please use a kind and respectful tone.
  • No profanity, hate speech or personal attacks. No off-topic remarks.
  • No disinformation about current events.
  • We will remove any comments — or commenters — that do not follow this commenting policy.