Proposed Marriott hotel in burn zone denied approval by Santa Rosa Planning Commission
Santa Rosa planning commissioners have blocked a large hotel project in Fountaingrove, citing the potential peril posed by future wildfire among their chief concerns, and foreshadowing a looming fight over the extent of new commercial development allowed in one of Sonoma County's biggest burn zones.
The first-of-its-kind decision came in a 3-3 vote Thursday by the city's Planning Commission, which withheld approval of a use permit for the 114-room, three-story Residence Inn Hotel by Marriott. It is envisioned for a 4.6-acre site just north of the former Hilton Sonoma Wine Country hotel and the Fountaingrove Inn, both of which were destroyed in the Tubbs fire in October 2017.
The outcome reflects the city's ongoing struggle to balance public safety with its stated commitment to facilitate redevelopment of burn zones. Officials vowed even in the immediate aftermath of the fire not to stand in the way of homeowners looking to rebuild in Fountaingrove, which lost nearly 1,600 homes in the Tubbs fire.
But embrace of new development, including commercial projects, has been a much trickier issue in the hillside area, which has burned twice in the past 54 years. In addition to the two hotels, the Tubbs fire destroyed the historic Round Barn, a quarter-mile south of the hotel, singed Fountaingrove office buildings and threatened nearby Kaiser and Sutter hospitals before jumping Highway 101 to the west.
The deadly and destructive Camp fire that swept through Butte County last month gave planning commissioners additional pause Thursday.
“I'm not against Marriott and think it would be appropriate to build an office building on that site, but (I) am against potentially putting tourists and business travelers, who may be unfamiliar with the area, in harm's way in the event of a firestorm,” said Vicki Duggan, a planning commissioner who voted against the use permit.
Patients and staff from a neighboring cancer treatment facility also opposed the Residence Inn proposal, bemoaning the potential loss of a scenic view they fear would be marred by a hotel roof and signs.
Property owner Billa Management and development partner Tharaldson Hospitality have until Dec. 10 to appeal the deadlocked decision to the Santa Rosa City Council. That step is forthcoming, said Ajaib Bhadare, a Telecom Valley entrepreneur and principal with Billa Management who lost his own Fountaingrove home in the Tubbs fire.
He hopes the council will override the Planning Commission.
“I think their reasons are silly, unless they're going to shut down all development in Fountaingrove, which would be crazy,” said Bhadare, who partnered with Tharaldson more than two years ago to develop a hotel on the hillside plot that slopes down from Round Barn Circle toward Highway 101.
The Residence Inn would be the first major commercial development rejected in Fountaingrove since last year's fires. A 237-unit Fountaingrove townhouse project was approved by the City Council after much deliberation, and an Oakmont Senior Living proposal to build a new senior care center in Fountaingrove was withdrawn before the City Council took action.
The Planning Commission in May approved a 100-room Hampton Inn & Suites, on the west side of Highway 101, about half a mile from the disputed Residence Inn site. It was proposed by Tharaldson Hospitality.
While the Planning Commission analyzes land-use proposals on a case-by-case basis, the City Council has the authority to set broader development policies, said David Guhin, director of the Planning & Economic Development Department. An appeal of the Residence Inn decision could trigger a larger discussion on development in fire-struck areas.
Bhadare cited the nearby Kaiser and Sutter hospitals and large employers Medtronic and Keysight as potential client bases and noted that city staff had recommended approval of the Residence Inn. He also questioned why his hotel project was rejected in part because of evacuation concerns while other similar developments, like the Hampton Inn, have advanced.
He remains undecided on whether to rebuild his own Fountaingrove home, but said the Planning Commission's decision made him more cautious about the city's receptiveness to new development that could drive the neighborhood's revitalization.
“If this area doesn't come back to the original or a better state,” Bhadare said, “then it kind of makes you think, do you want to live in Fountaingrove?”
Don Cape, vice president for Tharaldson, said he was surprised by the Residence Inn's failure to gain approval, citing the Planning Commission's earlier go-ahead for the Hampton Inn project.