Special election initiative would limit hotel size

Posted on March 19, 2013 by Sonoma Valley Sun

A group headed by former Sonoma mayor Larry Barnett will circulate a petition to place on a special election ballot an initiative to limit approval of large hotels within Sonoma city limits.

The Preserving Sonoma Committee announced the campaign Monday night.

If approved by voters, the proposed Large Hotel Growth Management Initiative would prevent the permitting of hotels of more than 25 rooms until the city’s lodging occupancy rate exceeds 80 percent. The occupancy rate last year was 64.8 percent.

“Large commercial hotels and their substantial impacts on traffic, noise and crowding risk destroying our unique small-town charm and character,” said Barnett, the former three-term city councilmember who heads the group behind the petition drive. “This issue is of such importance to our community’s future that the citizens should have their say.”

To qualify for a special election, the petition must be signed by at least 15 percent of the city’s registered voters. Barnett put that number at about 1,200, and said the special election could come as soon as September or October. A simple majority would decide the outcome.

Using the ballot box to control public policy is an established example of direct democracy in action, Barnett said. “People deserve the opportunity to be heard.”

The initiative would apply, Barnett said, to hotels that had not yet received “final approvals” from the city. This would include Chateau Sonoma Hotel & Spa, the proposed 59-room luxury hotel on the 100 block of First Street West.

Though designed, and discussed at several public meetings, Chateau Sonoma has yet to submit a formal plan to the city or present an environmental impact report. Getting any “final approval” by October is virtually impossible.

Barnett said the initiative is not about any specific hotel proposal, but about the danger to Sonoma’s quality of life posed by the threat of over-building large hotels to serve tourists. “Chateau Sonoma is emblematic of the problem,” he said.

There are a number of other commercially-zoned parcels in Sonoma available for hotel development, Barnett said. Under the current General Plan and Development Code, there are currently no specific limits on the size of hotels on those parcels.

The initiative uses the number of rooms, 26 or more, to define ‘large hotel.’ The overall size of any proposed building is not a consideration.

The other key metric is the 80 percent occupancy rate. Until the city meets that threshold, there is no need for additional hotel rooms, Barnett said.

Very few cities maintain an 80 percent occupancy rate, a Sonoma hotel general manager told The Sun. Even in years that are busy overall, the off-season and mid-week numbers keep the rate from rising above that number.

Last year, existing city hotels created a marketing fund – financed by a two percent increase in the hotel room tax – “to specifically help increase occupancy through more promotion,” Barnett said.

“Our existing hotels can’t fill enough empty rooms without financial help,” said Barnett. “Why on earth do we need more large hotels?”

Barnet said the initiative process gives a direct voice to the community, and was used successfully in Sonoma to prevent the hillside Rosewood Hotel in 1999 and to create Sonoma’s sprawl-stopping 20-year Urban Growth Boundary in 2000.

“It’s the promise of money at the price of quality of life,” Barnett said. “We seem to fight the same thing every 10 years or so.”

The Preserving Sonoma Committee includes Marilyn Goode, Ed Clay, Bob Edwards, Georgia Kelly and Jerry Bernhaut. The group will hold a signature and fundraising event on Sunday, April 21, at 2:30 p.m. at Vintage House. Find out more at