GUARDIANS Warren and Janis Gratton Watkins enjoy a Sonoma County hike, but keep an eye on development issues in their home town of Healdsburg. (Photo by David Bannister)

One of the largest city-owned public parks in Sonoma County is taking shape on the north end of Healdsburg, the result of a years-long negotiation and lot transfer with Ohana, also known as Sonoma Luxury Resorts, the owners of Montage Healdsburg.

The park, called Saggio Hills for the time being, will convert 38 acres of grassland into a full-service city park with a trails network, off-leash dog play area, community recreation features and a sports field including basketball courts and at least one, possibly two, baseball diamonds.

A bandstand, community garden and pump track are also in the park’s proposed master plan. Barbieri Brothers Park, a 3.5-acre community park at Bridle Path and Spur Ridge Lane, will be incorporated into the larger park plan.

“The park-naming process is on our work plan for this year, but we haven’t started the process yet,” said Community Services Director Mark Themig.

In a deed of transfer recorded on April 18 of this year, the city concluded the trade between Healdsburg and Ohana that made the development, and park, possible. The transfer includes a return to Montage of a slice of vineyard which the resort plants to landscape as an entrance to their luxury resort.

“Ohana (also known as Sonoma Luxury Resorts), the owner of the property, transferred the property to the city,” Themig said. “This fulfilled the original requirements set forth in the Development Agreement for the Saggio Hills project.”

The bulk of the transferred property is for the creation of a 38-acre public park and additional property for a proposed affordable housing project being developed by Oakland-based Freebird Development Company.

PARK PROPOSAL A map of the proposed Saggio Hills park on the north end of the city of Healdsburg, a 38-acre commons with natural features, recreation and community features. (Courtesy City of Healdsburg)

Change Comes to Healdsburg

The transfer marks an end point for a lengthy and controversial process that is changing the character of Healdsburg, once a busy—if modest—agricultural community on the Russian River, now a tourism destination for fine wine, haute cuisine and luxury accommodation.

Preeminent of those luxury accommodations is Montage Healdsburg, completed in December 2020, a 258-acre property of oak woodland and vineyards with 130 bungalow-style guestrooms and suites, an infinity pool, three dining options and an 11,500-square-foot spa. Minimum price for a guest room, according to several online booking services, is $1,070.

The resort sits adjacent to the separately owned Montage Residences, which will include at least 40 still-in-construction homes that can participate in the optional turn-key resort rental program. Ohana continues to own and develop the Montage Residences.

Other Montage hotels and resorts are located in Baja California, Laguna Beach, Hawaii, Utah, South Carolina and the Bahamas. At present, the owner of Montage Healdsburg is Sunstone Hotel Investors, which purchased the property in 2021 for $265 million from affiliates of Ohana Real Estate Investors.

“The Montage project has accelerated ultra-luxury tourism in our little town. Its hotel and housing prices are eye-popping,” said Janis Gratton Watkins, who along with her husband Warren was one of the key organizers of the Healdsburg Citizens for Sustainable Solutions that sued the city when they approved the project in 2008.

“Right now, the town is literally changing before our eyes,” she said. “Its transformation brings big challenges as well as positive things such as jobs and money.”

To this point, the City of Healdsburg has shown a substantial gain of income from the Montage project, largely due to the city’s 14% Transient Occupancy Tax that’s levied on overnight visitors. Last year’s TOT income was roughly $11 million, a number that includes all overnight accommodation including all hotels and motel rooms, inns, suites and licensed vacation rentals. 

In 2014, that number was $2.5 million.

The bulk of that income, 10%, goes to community services which include the Community Center, the Senior Center, recreation programs and special events, parks and open space. An additional 2% goes to support public safety, and the remaining 2% to support affordable housing initiatives.

Mixed Blessings

The history of the Montage development in Healdsburg has been a rocky one since it was first proposed by Robert Green, who paid $16.8 million in 2005 for the 259 acres to develop the area. The Sonoma Luxury Resort company won approval from the City Council in 2008, but a lawsuit from Healdsburg Citizens for Sustainable Solutions contested the environmental impact study the city approved, winning in court on several fronts in 2011.

That suit resulted in a settlement of over $382,000 in attorney fees paid by developer Green and his company, Sonoma Luxury Resort. Though Healdsburg was technically a defendant in the lawsuit, the developers had agreed to indemnify the city and be responsible for paying any court fees and judgments.

Under pressure from HCSS, the city negotiated the park, affordable housing and other concessions prior to its approval. But while the resort itself was completed in December 2020, the concessions that the city negotiated have not fared so well.

“Many of the community benefits promised by the Montage developer are in limbo,” Gratton Watkins said recently. “Although the 130-room resort is open and 25 houses are under construction, the 100-plus units of ‘workforce’ affordable housing are unbuilt. All hotel workers commute. The promised 12-acre public park waits for millions in funding, and the fire substation is a dirt field.”

However, the affordable housing project itself has crossed several hurdles in its path to creation. The recently approved Freebird development will be 100% affordable housing at various levels of low-income affordability. It will include 118 units on a 14-acre site.

Eight of the 11 extremely low-income units will be available to people with developmental disabilities. The development agreements were approved in February 2023, and construction will begin in 2024 with occupancy anticipated in 2025.

It is to be located at the easternmost end of Parkland Farms Boulevard, adjacent to the Healdsburg Ridge Open Space. Ironically, the failure of the city to adequately consider the environmental impact of the Saggio Hills development on the Open Space was one of the winning arguments made by HCSS in its lawsuit.

A further irony: Some of the attorney fees paid by Sonoma Luxury Resorts went to Janis Gratton Watkins, who acted as legal counsel in addition to being a member of the citizens group that brought the suit.

“I worked without compensation assisting an experienced CEQA attorney who agreed to add me to the team,” Gratton Watkins said. “After the CEQA win, I researched the law and determined I could recover public interest attorney fees for my legal work because I was acting in the public interest. The developer appealed my part of the fee award. We won decisively on this issue in the appellate court.”Details on Saggio Hills park planning can be found on the city’s website at

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  1. The discussion of the new park doesn’t mention pickle ball courts unless they are “community recreation features”? This is shocking given the interest in and competition for courts already. Dedicated pickle ball courts are only at the high school and available for only limited times. This is
    disappointing for a town of Healdsburg size and aspirations and worse still to have no apparent plans to address this deficiency. If anyone knows of other courts current or planned courts please let me know! Thanks.

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  2. This article does not at all depict the actual details of the proposed park. It seems to be more about Montage than the City of Healdsburg park. A Parks Design Team, made up of 30+ community members worked hard, through literal fires, flood and pandemic to work with the City and the Landscape Design company to make recommendations and help choose all the specifics for this park. To make comments like “at least one baseball field, possibly two”, is flippant and incorrect. The picture of the design clearly shows two.
    It’s disappointing to me. As a lifetime Healdsburg resident and a subscriber of the Tribune for decades, since the new ownership, I have not even opened the sad 2-page paper in recent months. This was the first article I actually thought would be information and relevant, but sadly, it was not.

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