An old-fashioned Healdsburg City Council meeting took place on Monday night, with wave upon wave of citizens queuing up to the podium to state their opinion of the council’s attempt to readopt the Hotel Ordinance first passed in December, 2018—and recently revealed to have been wounded twice in its first month by city staff inefficiency.
Some 40 people took their three minutes each to express a range of opinions on the issue, though the meeting turned into a referendum on Piazza’s generous impact on the city. The proposals on the agenda sought to re-establish the 2018 ordinance which limited hotels in the downtown commercial district to five rooms “per block face,” a metric borrowed from the city’s earlier limit on new downtown tasting rooms to one per block face.
The original ordinance would have scuttled Piazza Hospitality’s plans to build a 16-room “residential hotel” that planned for 37 bedrooms and 34 baths suitable to longer-term habitation than the usual hotel weekends or overnights.
The readoption was necessary because Piazza Hotel had demonstrably failed to have its application deemed complete by the city before the implementation date of the hotel ordinance (no. 1181), and the city had, perhaps out of inattention, allowed it to continue with preparation for the so-called “H4” at 400 Healdsburg Ave.
But when this year’s city staff looked into the project’s timeliness, prompted by an article in The Healdsburg Tribune, they found that the ordinance itself was potentially invalid, as it had not been “published in a newspaper of general circulation” within 15 days of its passage.
The possibility was raised that, should the council so desire, the ordinance could be made retroactive to Jan. 1, 2019, to make sure Piazza did not get its hotel permit. Only one councilmember, Chris Herrod, favored the retroactive approach—he had long advocated for the hotel limitations, and not incidentally raised the specter that Piazza’s application had been unfairly approved in a May 2022 article in the Sonoma County Gazette, before he ran for city council later that year.
Readopting the ordinance was proposed as the only way to make valid the 2018 city council vote to limit hotel development. The staff further suggested an “urgency” ordinance that would take place immediately, upon a 4/5 vote of the council, and a more standard ordinance that would still require two readings and a 30-day wait behind before it became official, provided it was published in that 15-day period.
Among the stream of public commenters, about evenly divided on the issue, were several members of the Healdsburg business community—including Talia Hart, the director of the Chamber of Commerce—who sang the praises of Piazza as a supporter of good works in town.
They succeeded in making the meeting, and the vote, about Piazza, when what was at stake was the competence of city staff, if not at present then certainly over four years ago, in early 2019.
Two significant members of today’s city staff are holdovers from that time. Scott Duiven, now the Community Development Director, i.e. the Planning Director, was in 2019 the senior planner responsible for shepherding Piazza’s application through the approval process. Samantha Zutler, then as now, is the city attorney.
Duiven made it a point to take the fall for the screw-up over the completion approval, although he called it “a clerical error,” akin to a typo. “I mentioned that the ordinance was in effect as of the 16th, rather than the ordinance was in effect the 15th,” he said. “I own that mistake and I apologize for putting the city council in this position that they’re in this evening when it comes to this project, as well as to the applicant who operated in good faith, I think, based on staff’s direction at that point in time.”
Following more than 90 minutes of public comment, both in the room and online, Mayor Ariel Kelley turned to the implicated staffers and asked direct answers: Was Piazza’s application deemed complete in time, was the date on the completeness letter a clerical error, and was Piazza’s project permitted, or was it entitled?
Duiven readily answered “no” to both those last questions, not permitted and not entitled, but the vagaries in the completeness process led to no clear accord on that issue. Zutler said that Duiven “sent a letter to Piazza notifying them of that determination on the 16th. I understand that the letter did not state that he had made that determination on the 15th, but my understanding is that it was made on that date.”
However, this is a personal opinion, and not a legal one: Staff records clearly show two department heads did not sign off on the project until Jan. 16, making Duiven’s letter of completeness accurate and not “a clerical error.” (See image at the end of this article online.)
Herrod was the first councilmember to offer his own comments. He bristled that the city council would be “put in the very contrived position of ruling for or against this hotel project,” calling it an unfortunate series of events to engineer an outcome that differs from the aim and intentions of the original ordinance adopted in 2018.”
Supporting the adoption of a retroactive clause, Herrod was straightforward. “The basic fact is that the community wanted, in 2018, to limit hotels,” he said. “Moving in a direction contrary to the ordinance would damage the community’s trust in its government.”
Councilmember Evelyn Mitchell followed, saying “Thanks for your comments, but I don’t agree at all.” Perhaps not, but she shared Herod’s discomfort in having to rule on this issue now, four years later. She openly said she wouldn’t have supported the ordinance, but opted to support it now “out of respect for our previous council and the community.”
She also stressed that “we’re not being asked to approve the hotel. Right? I think that we need to make that separation and realize we’re being asked to approve an ordinance to fix two mistakes.”
The most anticipated of the council members may have been David Hagele, then, in 2018, as he is now—vice mayor. In 2018 he voted against a downtown ordinance not once but twice, but both times it passed 4-1.
Taking note of that, he said, “I’ve been on the losing end of the vote in the past, and I am a council member first. So even though I was a losing member on that particular item, I support the council’s decision.”
He also agreed to support the emergency ordinance. “I don’t want to see this again,” he said, “where somebody can come in and sneak in. It doesn’t sound like anybody is sniffing around, but I know that there have been transactions …”
Mayor Kelley aptly summarized what should have been the focus of their debate, saying that regardless of how much appreciates or disparages Piazza Hospitality, “That’s not what this is about and that’s not what it should be about,” she said. “It’s not about the individuals, it’s about the project or the land use, and that’s the ordinance that we’re looking at tonight.”
The upshot was that all five council members voted not only for re-adopting the hotel ordinance from 2018, but doing so as an urgency ordinance, to go into effect immediately.
Piazza Hospitality announced, following the meeting, they were speaking with city staff about rescheduling a Planning Commission hearing. The commission’s next meeting is Tuesday, Oct. 10.