Fountaingrove Marriott gets approval in Santa Rosa, will need an evacuation plan

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Santa Rosa’s City Council signed off on a new Residence Inn by Marriott in fire-ravaged Fountaingrove, after developers agreed to submit an evacuation plan for city approval and dig deeper into their hilly plot to preserve views for patients at a nearby cancer treatment facility.

The proposed 114-room, four-story, extended-stay hotel, which the council approved on a 5-1 vote Tuesday, still needs architectural approval from a city board and is likely years away from opening. It is a joint effort between Telecom Valley entrepreneur Ajaib Bhadare and nationwide hotel developer Tharaldson Hospitality.

The permit is a key one for the development in the high-risk fire zone — near the former Hilton Sonoma Wine Country hotel and the Fountaingrove Inn, both of which were destroyed in the October 2017 Tubbs fire — on the condition that it comes with an evacuation plan reviewed and approved by the Santa Rosa Fire Department.

That’s above and beyond typical regulations and comes on top of the hotel’s commitment to comply with “building codes, fire codes, every code in existence,” said Tina Wallis, a Santa Rosa land-use attorney hired to advocate for the project. She noted the project was supported by numerous nearby businesses, including Keysight, Medtronic, Sutter Health and Kaiser Permanente.

The project also got a thumbs-up up from Tyler Hedden, a top executive with St. Joseph Health Sonoma County, which operates a cancer recovery center up the hill and across the road from the proposed hotel site. Cancer center patients, employees and advocates previously opposed the new hotel, fearing that it would obstruct expansive views enjoyed by convalescents.

“The applicant has taken our concerns very seriously and has acted upon them,” Hedden told the council before it voted.

Tuesday’s vote marked a sharp turnaround from the Planning Commission’s denial of the project in November. After an appeal by Bhadare, a February City Council hearing ended without a decisive vote, and council members told city staff not to bring back the project until the hotel developers and the cancer center reached some sort of agreement.

The new hotel building will be the same height, but additional hillside grading will drop it down 3 feet when viewed from the cancer center. That arrangement was reached after several meetings between Bhadare’s team and St. Joseph’s over the past five months, according to documents filed with the city.

Pressed by City Councilwomen Julie Combs and Victoria Fleming, Wallis also said the hotel applicants would furnish staff with panic buttons. This safety measure was suggested by Combs, who said she was concerned hospitality staff could be sexually assaulted or harassed. It’s similar to a requirement that an unsuccessful California bill would have enacted statewide last year.

Combs, the lone no vote, said she supported new hotels — but in the proper location.

She questioned whether there would be sufficient water pressure to fight future wildfires threatening the hotel and the rest of Fountaingrove. Water pressure in Fountaingrove plummeted during the Tubbs fire, which destroyed about 1,500 homes in that area, because of unfettered flows from sprinklers, hoses and showerheads, a city report concluded last year.

“I appreciate that my colleagues may have a different view of this, but I will be not be supporting any sleeping structures in the wildfire area of Fountaingrove,” Combs said.

Bhadare’s Santa Rosa home was one of roughly 3,000 in the city destroyed in the fires. Fleming cited her faith in Bhadare as a key reason she voted to support the hotel project.

“I appreciate all of the work you and your team have done to try to assuage my concerns,” Fleming said. “I’m not sure that anything short of another wildfire in which we’re all safe from it and there’s no loss to life or property would do much more for me.”

The city Design Review Board will have to approve the new hotel’s architectural and landscaping plans before construction can begin, and Santa Rosa fire officials will have to sign off on the hotel’s evacuation plan before the city issues building permits.

Councilman John Sawyer abstained from the public hearing and the vote, as he did in February. Sawyer chairs the board of Santa Rosa Community Health, which operates a clinic adjacent to St. Joseph’s cancer center and will be affected by the new hotel, he said before the hearing.

You can reach Staff Writer Will Schmitt at 707-521-5207 or will.schmitt@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @wsreports.

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