They're Passionate About Keeping Sonoma Pastoral

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Tourists often think of this wine country town as Napa's country cousin, and residents here don't mind.

Yes, the city plaza is home to a flock of gaudy, noisy chickens that stop traffic each time they file across the road. And sure, some of the stores in town sport handmade signs, and a few could use a new coat of paint.

But Sonoma residents are passionate about the city's rough edges. They revel in the rustic atmosphere, and some see their eastern neighbor as sleek but slick--all public relations and not much soul.

So when the developer of a luxury resort cast an eye on a prime 60-acre hillside the city owns near the center of town, civic pride turned to a civics lesson.

Before developers could so much as file for a building permit, before the City Council even began debate, a group of residents organized. They met in living rooms, studied the state Constitution and plotted a petition drive to stop the hotel development at the ballot box in November.

Last month, the residents began walking through neighborhoods, staffing telephone trees and seeking the 850 signatures--15% of registered voters--needed to put the hotel development to a vote.

"In a nutshell, this would prevent the city from leasing or selling all or any part of that 60 acres," said Joseph Costello, a 20-year Sonoma resident who is leading the voter initiative drive. He wants the city to turn the land into a park instead.

"It's not our intent to tie the council's hands in terms of other uses which might be proposed in the future," Costello said. "This action is specifically aimed at the hotel."

It is also aimed at what a growing number of residents disdainfully call the "Napafication" of their rural community. After decades in Napa's sophisticated shadow, Sonoma has recently seen rapid growth. Newcomers priced out of the Napa area often settle in Sonoma.

"The Napafication of Sonoma is already there, I think, and it may be too far gone now to stop it," said Sonoma native Sylvia Bernard, an active supporter of the voter initiative against the hotel. "People fall in love with Sonoma, they move here, and the next thing you know, they want to change it. I just don't get that."

Sonoma's charm lies in its rolling hills, mellow weather and rural flavor. Visitors to the plaza, a wide stretch of lawns and gardens, can laze and picnic near drowsing ducks, children fighting for turns on the swings, and, on a recent weekend, an extended family celebrating a birthday with a barbecue for 50.

The surrounding shops, offices and restaurants run the gamut from mom-and-pop affairs in gently decaying wooden buildings to stylish upstarts that would look at home in any resort town. One shop displays $5 knickknacks on the 90-year-old Wedgwood stove that once belonged to the owner's Aunt Aggie. Across the street, a tony gallery sells imported sculptures for hundreds of dollars.

On weekdays, the town is quiet. It's easy to park and the notorious weekend traffic jams are absent. But for some recent transplants, that translates into rough economic going.

Sharon Dolan moved to Sonoma from San Francisco five years ago. Although drawn to the area for its pastoral flavor, she wants the hotel proposal to go through.

"I personally think it would be good for the town, it would create more jobs and bring in more business," said Dolan, who works in a downtown restaurant. "I don't want to see so much growth the whole place changes, but I also need to earn a living."

Potential Revenue Cited

The hotel debate began in August when a real estate broker told city officials that Rosewood Hotels and Resorts, a luxury hotel chain, was looking for a chunk of land for a 105-room wine country inn. City officials refused to sell, but suggested a long-term lease for the 60 oak-studded acres the city has owned since the 1880s. Rosewood became interested.

The resort chain, which owns hotels in England, India, Mexico and Dallas, charges $200 to $2,000 per night at its hotels. In addition to attracting affluent tourists to the area, the resort would help fill civic coffers through the city's 10% bed tax.

"It's all just in the talking stages right now," said Mike Moore, Sonoma's director of planning, building and public works. "No application has been filed, the land hasn't been appraised, nothing has happened yet."

But it will. Hal Thannisch, an Atlanta-based developer in partnership with Rosewood, said the group is very interested in the property, which suits its needs. The group plans to submit a development application this month.

"We think we have a formula of authenticism and can provide true, non-contrived experiences that would thrive in the wine country," he said. "The area has a micro-culture of good food, good wine, history, art, and the rural character of the countryside--all these elements drawn together and captured in one package would definitely succeed."

And what of the local rebellion, which could stop the hotel at the ballot box?

"If we are forced into a referendum vote, we'll deal with that," Thannisch said. "We are determined to develop a project in the wine country. If not on this site, then we'll go somewhere else."

Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World
69°