In my previous blog post, I wrote that what is going on in Sonoma is “A Story for the World.” When I’ve told this tale elsewhere, people have said, “That’s going on all over the country.” Or, “Hey, that’s happening in my town!” For people outside Sonoma who are interested in similarities, here’s a snapshot.
A bitter fight is being waged in the sleepy wine-tasting city of Sonoma—known as “Slow-noma” to the locals--just over the hill from its world-renowned neighbor Napa. On Nov. 19, voters in this 2-square-mile town will decide whether to keep the quaint feel of a tiny tourist destination or whether to allow big hotels—in particular one large resort—to be built before existing ones are doing a roaring trade.
The vote in Sonoma is fraught with some heavy political considerations—not just about tourism, transient occupancy tax, historical character, traffic and jobs but also about underlying issues that may reverberate as far as Las Vegas or even Cuba. Some don’t appear in the proposition, called Measure B, The Hotel Limitation Measure. But they are talked about in cafes and pubs and in blogs and in homes around the valley. They are considered by many people to be the reasons the initiative got under way, even if both sides try to focus on other issues. It could be construed as a grassroots campaign to stop big money and connections from changing the treasured small town ambiance and taking over the valley.
One of the previous go-arounds on this issue of big hotels was memorialized in the book “A Tale of Two Valleys: Wine, Wealth and the Battle for the Good Life in Napa and Sonoma,” by Alan Deutschman in 2003. The journalist described Sonoma Valley as Bohemian. Today, the city’s mayor, Ken Brown, still sports a ponytail down to his behind but some of the politics have changed.
In the latest revolt, former mayor, Larry Barnett, and his supporters have garnered more than 1,600 petition signatures to gain a special election. The measure would block development of new hotels of more than 25 rooms, or the expansion of existing ones to that size, until the current hotel occupancy exceeds 80 percent.
Even though it’s not written into the measure, at the core of the social debate is one particular planned resort and its developer. Darius Anderson was a political consultant for an Indian tribe in an attempt to bring a casino to the edges of the valley in 2003. A vociferous citizens’ campaign touting the benefits of “Cows Not Casinos!” defeated the move. Anderson then helped the tribe place the casino near Rohnert Park, north of Sonoma, along Highway 101. A Sonoma County group fearing a chain of gambling operations has formed a non-profit group to fight back, called Stop The 101 Casinos.
Anderson is considered the most connected lobbyist in Sacramento and is a longtime political fund raiser, mostly for the Democrats. The Las Vegas-based Station Casinos corporation is one of his clients. So, taking into account his proposed 59-room Chateau Sonoma just off the famous historical Square, some Sonomans fear the eventual placement of a casino in or near their town.
“This is a vendetta against Darius Anderson,” former mayor Joanne Sanders declared at a city council meeting this year, as the hotel limitation initiative gained momentum. She said business people needed to start organizing against it.
And they did.
Opponents of Measure B have galvanized into a group called Protect Sonoma. Anderson put up the seed money and hired someone to run it, according to news reports. The list of endorsements reads like a Who’s Who among the city’s leaders: local business, the labor council, sheriff’s association, tourism organizations, vineyard and winery owners, plus those who have worked in Sonoma county politics, along with Sonoma’s honorary mayor and mayoress, a local minister, part of Sonoma’s radio station management, individuals in real estate and a member of the hospital board.
On the other hand, Preserve Sonoma is the grassroots group pushing for the hotel size limit. The list of supporters includes many who supported a successful ballot measure in 1999 to block a 105-room resort--Rosewood Hillside--proposed for the hill between Sonoma and Napa. Sonoma’s current mayor Brown led the charge for that measure. This year, he has come under fire from some residents—at city council meetings and in local media—for opposing the currently proposed hotel size limit. Brown, however, contends there’s a big difference between 105 rooms and 59. Complicating the fight is the fact that Brown has received campaign donations from Anderson, whose hotel-restaurant-retail complex is slated for West Napa Street.
The Press Democrat reported on Oct. 12 that a total of $30,571 in nonmonetary contributions has been given this year by Chateau Sonoma Hotel Group LLC to the Protect Sonoma Committee. This far overshadows such contributions to the hotel limitation proponents.
Monetary donations to each side are approaching $20,000.
Anderson has become increasingly controversial over the past 15 years. His name has cropped up in news articles in the L. A. Times, San Francisco Chronicle, Sacramento Bee and North Bay newspapers.
Back in 2005, the Chronicle called Anderson “one of the least liked guys in town,” when he moved into Sonoma Valley because of his loud parties and the way he cut down trees to install a road on his ranch. It was reported he planned to build a replica of Jack London’s Wolf House—the famed author’s dream home that burned down—just 4 miles from the author’s ranch. However, he has endeared himself to some of the locals over time because he collects Jack London memorabilia.
Anderson and his Sonoma Media Investments partners have acquired North Bay news outlets at a rate that spurred San Francisco Business Times to proclaim in 2012, “The spirit of Citizen Kane is alive and well in Sonoma County.“ Among his partners are Steve Falk—a former Chronicle publisher--and Doug Bosco, a retired congressman, for whom Anderson was once an aide. The group now owns The Press Democrat in Santa Rosa, the Sonoma Index-Tribune, The Petaluma Argus-Courier and the affiliated publications. The buzz in Sonoma is that he is interested in the radio and TV operation there as well. There were earlier reports that he was eyeing the Napa Register.
“It’s tough to write anything bad about your boss,” former mayor Sanders was reported as saying when the move was made to acquire the Press Democrat, which had previously published articles critical of Anderson.
However, Anderson has gained increasing favor with a growing number of North Bay residents because of his financial gifts. When the city of Sonoma couldn’t raise all the money to have a fireworks show of the usual quality, Anderson came to the rescue with a check for $10,000, for example.
But other Sonoma residents are jittery over Anderson and money. He has been accused of pay-to-play with officials out of three states: California, New York and New Mexico. In 2010, he settled with the New York Attorney General’s Office for $500,000 to resolve an investigation into his reported part in getting public pension fund investments for his clients. The AG, Andrew Cuomo, investigated Anderson and Platinum Advisors for allegedly operating as an unlicensed broker in 2004 for a Los Angeles equity firm, according to a news report. The settlement did not involve any admission of wrongdoing. A New Mexico case regarding alleged “fraud against taxpayers” went to an appeals court in December 2012. http://caselaw.findlaw.com/nm-court-of-appeals/1621771.html Nothing came of the California investigation under Gov. Jerry Brown.
The list of Anderson’s lobbying clients for his company, Platinum Advisors, has included AT&T, Anthem Blue Cross, Clear Channel Communications, as well as Station Casinos and a host of other big names, according to the Secretary of State’s web site.
His influence resonates throughout the Bay Area, as the redeveloper of the Navy’s former Treasure Island and an owner of The Aquarium of the Bay, which is now owned by a non-profit. He was an early key player in negotiations to create a partly publicly subsidized downtown arena for the Sacramento Kings basketball team.
News articles have reported Anderson has taken at least eight state legislators on trips to Cuba, under the auspices of his non-profit organization Californians Building Bridges. Some have declared the trips as political expenditures on their financial statements. The lawmakers are from Los Angeles (Holly Mitchell), San Diego (Toni Atkins), San Luis Obispo (Katcho Achadjian), Stockton (Cathleen Galgiani) and Montebello (Ron Calderon). He is reported to have made 50 trips to the communist country over the past 10 years.
Through both Anderson’s lobbying firm and his development company, Kenwood Investments, he has offices in San Francisco, Sacramento, Orange County and Irvine, as well as Sonoma.
So, it is clear that this heavy hitter in the worlds of politics and finance has a broad reach throughout the nation, representing big interests.
To the alarm of some Sonomans, Anderson is proposing to put his Chateau Sonoma just off the town’s famous Square, which surrounds the grassy Plaza and historic city hall. He is reported to want it to house people who attend events at his Ramekins Culinary Institute in Sonoma. Anderson originally proposed the project as a French-themed hotel, with 59 rooms, restaurant, retail space and event facilities; however, the design has gone back to the drawing board, in order to reduce the “physical footprint” and offer a new theme: Jack London, according to the Press Democrat. Some Sonomans didn’t feel the French theme fit the town.
The controversy over the hotel limitation initiative has led to a battle in blogs and letters on Sonoma news outlets. In addition to the wrangling in the media, some public officials and their constituents are seen on occasion storming out of public meetings.
The measure could be seen as targeting Anderson to keep him from getting a deeper foothold with his large “footprint.”
Opponents of Chateau Sonoma worry that it’s not the only major project Anderson plans. They fear monstrous tourist attractions may invade their somnolent valley. Some bluntly say they don’t want it to “become like Napa Valley,” which they feel is overgrown.
Anderson has been reported to have his eyes on the land currently housing the state-owned Sonoma Developmental Center in the valley, which is home to severely developmentally disabled people and is slated for closure. The perceived threat of a casino has lead to the citizen slogan “Patients not casinos,” referring back to the 2003 cows slogan.
Any day now, absentee ballots will be in voters' hands. Proponents of the hotel limitation are asking people to “Vote Yes for Small.” Opponents urge voters to let elected officials and the process currently in place decide the future, not people who they say are “mischaracterizing” the issues.
No doubt voters will go to the polls with their heads full of statistics about employment, tourism, traffic and transient occupancy taxes. Many may also wonder exactly out of whose pockets today’s planned development money might be coming from and how a momentum already set in place could affect the future of North Bay.
Julie Pendray is former editor of www.SonomaValley.Patch.com , owned by Patch Media Corp., a subsidiary of AOL. She lived in Sonoma Valley 2012-2013.
(to read a previous post “A Story for the World,” Blog Post 3, go to: http://sonomavalley.patch.com/groups/journeys/p/a-story-for-the-world )