Eight weeks before voters will decide on one of the issues that has dominated debate in the city of Sonoma's hotel and business circles for much of the year, the county's largest environmental organization has thrown its weight behind Measure B, the so-called Hotel Limitation ballot initiative.
“We are persuaded by arguments of preserving town character and a small-growth approach that is more appropriate for a town the size of Sonoma," Sonoma County Conservation Action Board Chairman David Keller said in a statement.
The sole item on the docket for the city's special Nov. 19 election, Measure B proposes to limit the size of new hotels in the city to 25 rooms unless the annual hotel occupancy rate reaches 80 percent for the previous calendar year. The town’s average annual occupancy rate is 62 percent.
Board officials said they spent considerable time weighing the matter.
"We’ve been advocating city-centered growth for more than two decades. But not all growth is appropriate for every town,” said Bill Kortum, SCCA President Emeritus. “We ultimately felt that preserving the small town experience for both residents and visitors strikes the right balance for the City of Sonoma. This choice may be different from one city to the next, but our small towns and the ambience they maintain are part of the mixture that makes Sonoma County comfortable for visitors.”
In announcing its decision, the board said that it has been watching the expansion of the tourism industry in Sonoma for some time.
"We see tourism as one important economic driver for Sonoma County, along with agriculture, industry, technology, and recreation," they wrote. "However, we also see a proliferation of wine tasting rooms in the towns of Sonoma and Healdsburg, as well as new event centers spreading throughout our rural and agricultural lands. Catering to the high end tourist industry has impacts on the environment, residents, and farming. High end tourism prices out ordinary people such as farmers, renters, workers, and local businesses. Affordable living is slipping away."
The two organizations on competing sides of Measure B have dug in their heels on the issue.
Preserving Sonoma, the committee that supports limiting new hotel construction, spent more than $42,000 during the previous filing period of March through June, while Protect Sonoma, the committee that opposes the measure, spent more than $26,000 to oppose the measure.
Behind votes from Mayor Ken Brown and Councilmembers Tom Rouse and David Cook, the Sonoma City Council voted in August to officially oppose Measure B and submit an argument against it in the voter pamphlet.
If adopted by a majority of the voters voting on it, this initiative measure would amend the Sonoma General Plan and Development Code to require that the establishment of a hotel with more than 25 rooms must receive a use permit approved by the Planning Commission. Similarly, the expansion of an existing hotel, motel, or bed and breakfast inn to more than 25 rooms will have to receive a use permit approved by the Planning Commission.
The Planning Commission would be prohibited from granting such a use permit unless it found, among other things, that (a) the annualized hotel room occupancy rate for the calendar year (January 1 to December 31) preceding the filing of the hotel application exceeds 80%, and (b) the proposed hotel will not adversely affect the historic, small town character of Sonoma. The measure provides that the annualized hotel room occupancy rate would be calculated by comparing the total number of hotel, motel, bed and breakfast inn and vacation rental room nights rented in the City with the total number of room nights available for rent in the City, during the relevant calendar year. In calculating whether the occupancy rate of 80% has been exceeded, the measure requires inclusion of the rooms available for rental and rented at (i) bed and breakfast inns, which are defined to mean rental facilities possessing 5 or less rooms and (ii) vacation rentals, which are defined to mean rental properties containing one or two residential units.
If the Planning Commission’s decision concerning a hotel governed by this measure is appealed to the City Council, the hotel could only be approved by a 4/5th’s vote of the City Council.
The General Plan and Development Code provisions re-adopted and adopted by the measure could not be changed or repealed except by a subsequent vote of City voters.
The measure would apply to any hotel development proposal subject to its provisions that has not received final approval by the time the measure becomes effective. The measure does not apply to the renovation, maintenance, or repair of an existing hotel unless the renovation, maintenance or repair increases the total number of rooms of the hotel.