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Last Resort

[whitespace] Ken Brown and Dave Williams Michael Amsler

Fighting for the high ground: Sonoma City Councilman Ken Brown, left, and Dave Williams of Citizens for Measure A perch on land where developers want to build a large luxury hotel. On Sept. 21, voters decide the fate of the project.

Luxury hotel plan raises hackles in Sonoma

By Yosha Bourgea

SONOMA'S downtown plaza is an oasis of shade. On an early August afternoon, tourists and residents alike gather beneath the leafy, spreading oaks to escape the heat that withers the rest of Sonoma Valley. A toddler chases a well-fed rooster across the grass. Across the sidewalk, battered pickup trucks rub shoulders with glossy Miatas and Eclipses. And in the distance, rising behind city hall, are the Mayacamas Mountains.

Against this backdrop, 60 acres of city-owned land overlooking the town have become the focus of a struggle between those who want to see a luxury resort built there and those who prefer the hillside as it is. The matter comes to a head on Sept. 21, when the citizens of Sonoma will decide whether or not to approve Measure A.

If approved, Measure A would prevent the building of any hotel or resort on the land. If it doesn't pass, Rosewood Hotels will be allowed to submit a proposal to the city for construction of a $62 million, 105-room resort.

In the interim, the issue has become a hot topic in Sonoma. In a town that many residents say is being loved to death--where tourists fuel the local economy but increasingly are blamed for high rental prices, traffic congestion, wear and tear on the plaza, and related issues--the proposed luxury hotel is the last resort. Supporters of the proposed project, equipped with deep pockets, have paid for numerous advertisements in the Sonoma Index-Tribune. In a statement released last Friday, the Sonoma Police Professionals Association has expressed support for the "No on A" campaign, calling the measure "shortsighted."

But Sonoma County Conservation Action, the county's largest environmental organization, has endorsed the ballot measure. In the window of Sage Marketing, just off the plaza on First Street, is a bumper sticker that reads NO ROOM FOR RO$EWOOD.

"We feel that this is just another example of how large economic interests will move in on a small city and dangle tax revenues in front of them," says Mark Green, executive director of Conservation Action. "It's unfortunate that the City Council wasted taxpayers' money by putting this to a vote."

Rosewood supporters agree that an election should not have been necessary. Nick Tibbetts, a Santa Rosa political consultant hired by the hotelier, believes that Measure A is a bad idea regardless of whether the city chooses to accept Rosewood's offer.

"The problem with Measure A," Tibbetts says, "is that it doesn't allow the city and citizens to look at a proposal down the line that has merit."

THE MONEY behind the Rosewood project comes from Javier Burillo Azcarraga, a member of one of the richest and most powerful families in Mexico. Burillo owns another Rosewood resort, Las Ventanas, in Cabo San Lucas; from his grandfather, he inherited the Ritz Hotel in Acapulco. In addition, Burillo owns 18 restaurants throughout Mexico.

It is not without irony that the land Burillo wishes to purchase from Sonoma was originally given to the city by another prominent Mexican, General Mariano Guadalupe Vallejo. Today, more than a hundred years later, the general's grave is among those on the hillside in Mountain Cemetery, California's first "official" graveyard. But the graveyard takes up only a small part of the land, and because of the rocky soil, expansion of the cemetery is not cost-effective.

For now, more than 55 acres of the property remain undeveloped open space, occupied only by local flora and fauna. City Councilman Ken Brown says there is evidence of an extremely diverse wildlife population on the hillside. Though the area is now closed to the public and marked with "No Trespassing" signs, hikers still make the trek up through the oaks to the summit, where, on a clear day, they can see San Francisco.

Brown, a self-described "strong proponent" of Measure A, wants to protect the last significant open space within city limits from falling into the hands of private ownership. There's nothing wrong with making use of the land, he says, as long as it remains public property.

"[Measure A] in no way precludes anything but a hotel and a resort from being built there," Brown says.

One alternative, which community volunteer organizations have been planning for the last three years, would be to incorporate the site into a 400-mile network of hiking trails throughout the Bay Area. The price tag is $10,000 per mile, and 2.2 miles of trail have been proposed for the site.

"We have enough volunteers and money to build this trail and maintain it," Brown says.

But concerns about the safety of the site persist. In the recent past, the Sonoma Ecology Center had sponsored nature walks in the area. Despite being guided by experts, one woman slipped on the trail and broke an arm. At that point, says City Manager Pam Gibson, the area was declared off-limits. "Until an expert tells me it's safe again, the area will remain closed," she says.

There is also the matter of the waste dump. In the first half of the century, a site on the land was used as a transfer station for hazardous waste. Although the dump has not been in use since the 1950s, the county continues to inspect it on an annual basis. So far, according to Gibson, officials have not declared the site hazardous.

But not everyone agrees. "We like to say that it's a great concern," Tibbetts says. "The dump is dangerous because of scavengers who might be injured and because of the possibility of toxic waste." And Michael Hove, a Sonoma resident who backs the proposed resort, calls the dump a ticking bomb.

"Right now it's very dangerous," Hove says. "It's a 60-acre plot of land which is inaccessible."

IF THE HOTEL is built on the property, cleaning up the dump would be Rosewood's responsibility. According to Hove, the management would be more than happy to do it. Not only that, he says, but the hotel's backers have offered to create and maintain a trail system in the area, as well as a public park.

The No on A campaign maintains that the resort would have a minimal visual impact on the hillside, and that the year-round revenue generated by the hotel would more than offset the impact of traffic on the city.

"One of the things the opposition doesn't mention much is that the resort would create about 250 staff jobs," Hove says. "For every person that finds a job at Rosewood, it means that much less traffic leaving town."

And if Rosewood builds within city limits, Sonoma will reap the benefits of the 10 percent Transit Occupancy Tax that applies to hotels. If Measure A passes, says Hove, Rosewood won't disappear; it will simply move to a more favorable location in the area. That could leave Sonoma burdened with more traffic, but little to no financial gain.

"There will be a Rosewood hotel in the Sonoma Valley," Hove says emphatically.

The only question, it seems, is where.

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From the August 26-September 1, 1999 issue of the Sonoma County Independent.

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