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.

Cape characterized the commission's decision as “more of an emotional reaction to the last 30 days of tragedy,” alluding to the Camp fire.

Though Fountaingrove's water supply was beset with problems that hampered the firefight last year, Assistant Fire Marshal Ian Hardage told planning commissioners the area's water flow was above what the project required for fire protection. He also said he did not foresee problems with visitors evacuating during a wildfire, given the hotel's proximity to Highway 101, and in response to inquiries about fire risk, noted that the hotel project would meet or exceed state and local building codes.

Meanwhile, at least one of the nearby former hotels appears on track to rebuild after the Tubbs fire.

Justin Hayman, general manager for the Fountaingrove Inn, emphasized that the hotel's owners were still weighing their options and wrangling over insurance matters stemming from the hotel's destruction. But he indicated that rebuilding the Fountaingrove Inn was in the cards.

“There's been movement and the intent is to rebuild,” Hayman said. “But we're not in a place where it's 100 percent swung to either side.”

Hilton representatives did not respond to a request for comment Tuesday on their plans for the former Wine County Sonoma hotel site.

Bhadare has been interested in developing his site for years, but has encountered consistent opposition from cancer patients and their allies in the medical field at the nearby St. Joseph Health Round Barn Cancer Center. The sweeping westward view from there makes grueling cancer treatment more bearable, they said.

Harry Richardson, a retired doctor and the managing partner of the group that owns the cancer center site, can remember around the year 2000 when office space was proposed on the property - Bhadare also was involved then - but nothing came of it after opposition helped sink the proposal.

The cancer center was built to be high enough so patients could have the view they enjoy, Richardson said.

“We're not against neighbors,” he said, “but we'd like them to respect our neighborhood.”

Cape and Bhadare said the Residence Inn's impact on the cancer center's vista would be limited. The hillside hotel would be built on an existing development pad that is below the roadway and would appear as a single-story building from the cancer center, Cape said.

Bhadare said he thought objections from cancer patients, not wildfire risk, formed the main reason his hotel project was denied.

“I don't know what else we could have done,” he said.

In addition to Duggan, commissioners voting against the use permit included Curt Groninga and Julian Peterson. Those in favor included Karen Weeks, Patti Cisco and Akash Kalia. Separately, the commission voted 4-2 in favor of some commercial development on the property - just not a hotel. Duggan joined the majority in that vote.

Commission Chairman Casey Edmondson abstained from both votes, saying afterward he wanted to avoid the appearance of a conflict of interest because his law firm was working for one of the applicants.

Groninga noted that he would hold new developments to a different standard than rebuilding projects put forward by property owners who “experienced huge loss” in 2017 fires. If the Fountaingrove Inn and Hilton hotel owners decide to rebuild, he would support those projects. New projects, he said, should be subject to “an extra close look.”

You can reach Staff Writer Will Schmitt at 707-521-5207 or On Twitter @wsreports.

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