Editorials ~ Sonoma Valley Sun


On Measure B

Posted on November 14, 2013 by Sonoma Valley Sun

The best argument for The Measure B electionis the weakness of the arguments against it. Like stale mints under the hotel pillow, they are rather hard to swallow.

Granted, the transient occupancy tax (hotel bed tax) is a big chunk of the city revenue. Opponents of B, including the City Council, say that without hotels in excess of 25 rooms, the city’s finances are in trouble. City services will suffer… fewer police and fire crews, crumbling infrastructure, mass hysteria. A cruel world from which FEMA or even Iron Man couldn’t save us – there’d be no place to stay.

The fiscal argument is tenuous at best. Right now, Sonoma is riding its biggest quarter ever for TOT, and that’s on the heels of a record-breaking 2013. Measure B stipulates that a 26+ room hotel may be built only if the town’s annual occupancy rate hits 80%. Opponents fume that that number is nearly impossible to reach. Most don’t notice that proponents don’t argue – it’s kind of the whole point.

If we can’t fill all the rooms now, why do we need new ones?

The City Council says we need the TOT money, but building new rooms does not guarantee they will be filled. It means more properties will be fighting over the same customers.

And councilmembers, by the way, what’s Plan B? Even if the measure fails, any new hotel won’t come online and start generating a true TOT increase for what, three or four years? What will cover that alleged budget gap until then? What have you been working on, other than counting on millionaire developers coming to the rescue, to guarantee the safety and services you claim will falter if Measure B wins?

Another argument against B is that such development decisions are too complex to be left to the voting public. There are processes already in place to vet such projects, opponents say, and everything must be ultimately approved by the Planning Commission and the City Council. In short, let us handle it. You were smart enough to vote for us, the reasoning goes, but not so smart that you should vote on this.

(Don’t worry, the loss of IQ is temporary; somehow we’ll all be smart enough again next fall to vote for the right council candidates.)

The initiative process, at least at this level, where it’s not contaminated by politics and money (yet), is a cool thing. It’s a fine and true element of democracy; you can bet there wasn’t much public input on the new Damascus Hilton. Some 1,310 people signed the Measure B petition. Now all voters will decide its fate at the polls. Why is that so alarming?

The city’s building process is ultimately controlled by 12 people: the five members of the City Council, and the seven members, unelected, of the Planning Commission. It’s nothing personal. The system works – until 1,312 people say it doesn’t.

And those ‘No on B’ signs promise to “Save the Square.” Saved from what, people who can’t afford a $400 room? No on B also promises “less traffic.” Than what? Two 25-room hotels?

It’s the tourist dollars, of course, that keep the Square tidy and the City humming along financially. It may not have had a choice, but the city long ago made the tourism industry the priority. The small-town horse is not only out of the barn, the barn was torn down to build a tasting room.

Would a “large hotel” be the tipping point that destroys the uniqueness of Sonoma, that ruins the character that attracts tourists in the first place? Probably not, but make no mistake – any large hotel (or chain store, or big box) will be built directly on the slippery slope.

Speeding down that tricky slope, how about a McDonalds, minus the arches and featuring locally sourced produce? A LEED certified outlet mall? Or why not cut right to the chase: a Mission-style casino and petting zoo. A casino and cows – very Sonoma.

If that sounds crazy, then you’ve acknowledged there is a point at which development is inappropriate. You’ve admitted there is some measure of logic to B, which is about quality of life and sense of place. It’s a feeling, an ideal; you can’t spend it or tax it. But you can vote on it.

— Val Robichaud | Sonoma Valley Sun

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