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Sonoma City Council requires votes to require more study for downtown hotel

The Sonoma City Council has voted unanimously to uphold an appeal seeking additional environmental study of a 62-room hotel project on West Napa Street.

The 5-0 council vote, in a special meeting on Monday, formally affirmed an appeal lodged by project opponents after the Planning Commission in April approved the environmental impact report for the $40 million Hotel Project Sonoma, which also includes a spa and 80-seat restaurant.

The special meeting followed a July hearing in which council members endorsed further work on the environmental report.

Critics said the report failed to fully disclose potential environmental impacts, address certain mitigation measures and offer project alternatives.

Bill Hooper, president of Kenwood Investments, the developer of the hotel, said the company supports the council’s decision because the extra study items will result in a more thorough document for the project. He noted the report is being written by an outside consultant selected by the city.

“We just think it’s good for everybody to have objective data to look at,” Hooper said.

Darius Anderson, founder of Kenwood Investments, is managing partner of Sonoma Media Investments, which owns The Press Democrat and Sonoma Index-Tribune.

The disputed project was first proposed in 2012 and revised after a high-profile and ultimately unsuccessful 2013 ballot measure to limit the size of new hotels to 25 rooms.

Anderson subsequently downsized the project, eliminating an events center and a second restaurant.

The revised environmental study for the project will eventually return to the Planning Commission for review.

According to a city staff report, additions to the report would focus upon the following:

an alternative in which about 50 percent of the proposed building area is residential and 50 percent is commercial

an alternative in which a residential component of eight to 12 units is added to the project

an alternative in which the project’s proposed restaurant is eliminated and the number of hotel rooms is reduced.

In voicing his support of the council’s action, Fred Allebach, one of the backers of the appeal, described the environmental mitigation measures as a small part of a larger picture.

“Given that (the United States) has withdrawn from the Paris Climate Accord,” said Allebach, “it’s really on us to take these measures seriously and do as much as we can.”

Appellate Larry Barnett, who spearheaded the failed 2013 ballot measure to limit new hotel sizes, advised the city to also look at a broader interpretation of the “vehicle miles traveled” brought on by a hotel than is currently in the EIR. A recent state court decision regarding Sonoma County’s climate action plan ruled that greenhouse gases fueled by tourists traveling from outside the county to their destination within the county could be subject to environmental review for new development projects.

However, the city staff report touched upon that issue, saying guidance from the state Office of Planning and Research focuses its miles-traveled tally on trips made by employees, not hotel guests. Additionally, the report says, the “metrics that are used to evaluate the potential impacts of a project in terms of VMT are in flux.” Staff, however, could address the issue upon further study, the report stated.

The council, which had been expected to approve the appeal, voted with little comment. Mayor Rachel Hundley said she was “pleasantly surprised” by the thoroughness of the resolution.

Press Democrat Staff Writer Robert Digitale contributed reporting to this story.

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