Does Sonoma need more hotels? Depends who you ask.
Obviously, our town is riven by the question of how to balance resident’s interests with tourism, which has been a top, unrealized council and community goal for many years. This goal is unrealized, and likely to continue to be misunderstood by community actors because the different cohorts are locked into their own echo chambers, and productive community dialogue degenerates into misunderstanding. Critical actors are talking past each other.
On one hand is the tourism boosting cohort. They favor no limits, and say there is demand that is not being met. On the other hand, is the sustainability cohort, who favors limits and controls, and says we already have enough tourists. The salient difference in the main opinions is: one favors economic bottom line thinking only, the other favors a triple bottom line, that includes social and environmental metrics along with economic factors.
The chief difference then is between those with narrow versus a broader scope. It is this scoping difference, and differences in primary assumptions about what is desirable for the town’s future, that define whether or not people believe we need more hotels. Primary assumptions also define in what ways actors think the system should ideally work. In many but not all cases, primary assumptions derive from popular ideology that boils down to flavors of liberal or conservative.
Town has troubles with the tourism issue because the relevant actors have different ideals and values. This values difference is part of an intractable national struggle for the soul of the country, and just who we are as a people. Yes, hotels are tourism are proxies for much bigger issues.
Being able to articulate values productively to people who believe otherwise is hard, because values are subjective, cultural constructs and not facts. Facts and objective information are seen not as an opportunity to discover a common baseline, but to establish a position to outflank the other guys, and have one set of values prevail. Thus, locals who want or don’t want more hotels end up taking past each other, or not talking at all. (Meanwhile, tourism just keeps intensifying, why? I’ll explain below.)
One primary assumption of economic bottom only thinkers, is that the “market” and private property are sacrosanct, and that boom and bust cycles are par for the course. Only the hard-working and deserving are able to get property, the rest are lazy. Structural explanation are akin to “socialism.” Everybody gets while the getting is good, until there is crash, and then lots of value is lost, a recession or depression is suffered, and then the cycle all starts over again. This is seen as normal and good.
Triple bottom line (TBL) thinkers advocate a carrying capacity approach, to plan and mange resources to live within the means of the resources available. The climate change crisis, the 6th
Great Extinction, and systemic world social inequity underlie sustainability precepts. If we don’t get it together, we will face a collapse as outline by Jared Diamond. TBL advocates call for systems literacy, to understand how all factors are connected. This leads to large-scale structural understandings that are an anathema to free market people.
Two radically different takes on the same world. Narrow scope, wide scope. Do we allow unregulated social Darwinism to run us, or do we manage systemic controls with the intelligence we have? This all boils down to major primary assumptions about how life works: individual selection or group selection, competition or cooperation? Hint: to break out of the local echo chamber problem, include both, move to holism from dualism.
Back to hotels. Hotel boosters rely more on ideology for rationales. Typically, this is a “free market” ideology that assumes an “invisible hand” will act as an emergent property that guides self-interested actions towards a greater social good. That the US has reached an all-time level of wealth inequality indicates that the invisible hand is not working, this especially in light of the recent, local Hidden in Plain Sight Study by the Sonoma Valley Fund. (See also John Donnelly’s critique in the Sun print edition of the Hidden In Plain Sight, and his call for more government action.)
The question of calling for limits and carrying capacity policy has been erroneously characterized by hotel boosters as being “anti-growth.” That citizens would want controls (sustainable development) on any public process is reasonable. No public policy should be a free for all; that would anarchy. Checks, balances, mitigations, these are all reasonable processes to bring to bear on public policy. This is why there are laws, to control cheaters and actors who go too far out of bounds. Too far out of bounds is what leads to the systemic inequities seen in Sonoma Valley, in the US and the world.
The tourism boosting, and the domination of luxury tourism in Sonoma Valley is having negative systemic costs in many areas, particularly for housing and high inflation for goods and services. Thus, more hotels are symbolic of the turning of Sonoma from an authentic small town into a marketed façade of itself. More hotels ultimately mean more inequity, more unaffordability, and yet the bulk of the powers that be don’t seem to be able to make that connection for the effect on residents.
One of the core issues concerning hotels in Sonoma today is the role of the Tourism Improvement District (TID) and the Sonoma Valley Visitor’s Bureau (SVVB). A number of years ago, the city council gave the TID a 10-year, irrevocable self-taxing authority, a bed tax, that produces upwards of $800,000 a year to advertise and boost tourism; this is to “put heads in beds.” The TID part-ways funds the SVVB, and, the city gives the SVVB $100,000 a year plus free rent in the Carnegie Library. The city is now enabling a covert advertising process that tells the whole world to come to Sonoma.
This TID, out-of-public-sight and control advertising activity, is what is generating more hotel demand, and there is no way for citizens to limit or control it because of the irrevocable nature of the funding. The SVVB “branded” Sonoma in a process that involved no public comment. The city, staff and council, are complicit in the whole arrangement, and see it all as good.
Thus, the publicly stated goal of “balancing residents and tourism” ends up as a sham goal, as the process to attract as many tourists as possible has already been set in place, and placed off limits to public control. The tourist tide is coming in all around us, and the main cause in the TID is ignored as people focus on symptoms like tour buses, congestion, second homes etc.
Then, city council members and staff say that there is a great demand for hotels, and this self-fulfilling prophecy then biases and guides public processes around hotel development. Those who call for some limits are really SOL, because no one can stop the TID from putting out the constant clarion call for more tourists: tour buses, limousines, vans, events, and so there, we need more hotels. A number of years ago, we as a community did not want to be Napa; now its seems we are hell bent to recap all the bad outcomes of Napafication. What happened?
The way to get some control here is to influence TID policy to adopt more triple bottom line assumptions. Is that even possible? The past city manager was intimately involved with the TID board of directors, so you know that city and TID policy are intimately intertwined. This all works itself back to a staff sharing of assumptions with city council members, which likely reinforces an economic bottom line mentality. That is sure the way it seems from the outside looking in, otherwise there would be more triple bottom line talk out the city and the council.
The TID’s actions and plans need to be put on the public table ASAP; otherwise it will be seen that the council has abdicated major public policy to a private entity, and now has lost control of how to direct tourism in town.
A look at the city council shows one member who is highly capable of addressing all these issues, and that is Amy Harrington. Harrington is smart, sharp as tack, does her homework, and appears to be the only one who takes seriously a notion to actively represent resident’s interests. Harrington appears to be the only council member capable of going head to head with staff, and on a factual basis, to question and discover errors in staff assumptions. It is refreshing to see evidence of someone who does their homework, like Steve Barbose. Residents as a constituency want representation, and a voice in public policy vis-à-vis the role and scope of tourism; someone who can voice the feelings of the near 50% of voters who pulled for Measure B. I respect Amy for her high level of competence and willingness to ask hard questions. I don’t take her for granted, she is independent-minded, with a strong evidence-based approach. She is no pushover for anybody.
Cook and Edwards are ideologically similar, and both invoke a kind of unprovable silent majority (“all those e-mails”) justification for their positions, which usually represents the economic bottom line only cohort. Edwards does say his values, and sticks up for property rights over how they may affect the public sphere. Rachel Hundley at times seems to be on the fence re: residents, tourism and hotels, while also being clear that sustainable tourism and housing are serious issues needing to be addressed. Agrimonti is a wild card who does not present consistent, well-defined positions.
So, when the appointment of the new Planning Commission comes up, it is easy enough to see whose interests will be appointed regarding hotels, and for any balancing of tourism v.s resident’s quality of life. These biases will come out in the wash of Planning Commission decisions, which will then be appealed to the council, as part of the legal process in place, and then we will have more showdowns at OK Corral, with just one vote needed to make a pro hotels majority.
As Sheila O’Neill and others have suggested, the council could easily nip in the bud hotels in inappropriate places, and not allow a protracted EIR dispute process to unfold. That might be a smart tack, if we want to save staff time and money.
The real bottom line regarding hotels and balancing city character with tourism, is how much does the city council actually represent public opinion? The economic bottom line only cohort has a meme going that the sustainability cohort is a “vocal minority”, and that there are 11,000 other people who think otherwise. The hotel boosters are the wealthiest. They are the 1%, an actual minority that is strongly affecting the flavor of Sonoma’s future. These boosters have backing in city hall and on the council. Money and power seem to add up over citizens.
I challenge the council to look at the precinct vote overlays of how blue Sonoma really is. This means the electorate favors sustainability over no limits. There is no economic bottom line silent majority here, only the 4 or 500 votes that elected council members.
More sophisticated analysis is needed from council members on the dais, more engagement of the merit and details of issues. Amy Harrington is an A-student model to emulate here. Hotels are a proxy issue, as is housing, for a contest of values that few seem able or willing to articulate in full scope. On one side is seen fantastic success and lots of money for the city, on the other side is seen a failure to recognize and address unsustainable patterns of tourism development. Amy provides an example of how to engage and bring evidence forth. Otherwise, council comment and discussion is pure opinion with no basis.
If we’re going to productively debate these issues, the first step will be to stop talking past each other, break out of simplistic dualisms as primary drivers of our thought, and find a common baseline to work foreword from.