Organizer Veronica Napoles, of Boyes Hot Springs, helps conduct a meeting with local residents in the group “Wake Up Sonoma” as they discuss strategies and concerns about a local developer buying up properties, Tuesday, Nov. 29, 2022, at a private residence in Sonoma. (Darryl Bush/For The Press Democrat)
Controversial developer Ken Mattson’s latest plans for Sonoma Valley has some residents suspicious
THE PRESS DEMOCRAT
December 6, 2022, 11:39AM
| Updated 1 hour ago
Fifteen people sat around a long table in the Springs neighborhood of Sonoma on a recent Tuesday night. A plate of chocolate cupcakes and a bowl of tangerines rested on the table, which was covered in white cloth. A decorated Christmas tree rotated in a corner of the room.
This was no festive holiday gathering, though. The neighbors had come together to discuss a proposal floated at a public meeting two weeks earlier and to hash out ways to prevent it becoming a reality.
“I am praying to God this is not a done deal,” Springs resident Veronica Napoles said.
At the earlier Nov. 15 public meeting, and a Spanish-language version the following night, the idea of a public-private partnership to develop a community plaza in a long-neglected, unincorporated area north of downtown Sonoma was proposed.
The plaza would be located in the Springs neighborhood, just north of the historic Boyes Hot Springs Post Office on Highway 12, near the center of a two-mile corridor that runs through Boyes, Fetters Hot Springs and Agua Caliente.
Though the plan is nothing more than a loose concept right now, it has quickly met organized opposition. Those who attended the Nov. 29 brainstorming session had concerns about traffic, use of public funding and talk of an underground parking garage.
But their skepticism had more to do with who is behind the proposal.
“The problem is that we have no confidence in the developer, nor in the developer-county relationship.”— Angela Marino
The private side of this hypothetical public-private partnership is Ken Mattson, who along with his wife, Stacy, — and their many limited liability companies — have purchased more than 60 properties in the Sonoma Valley since they showed up on the radar about seven years ago.
Many of those parcels sit dormant or in a state of semi-repair, leading to widespread suspicions about the Mattsons’ goals.
If people are discussing development issues in Sonoma these days, Ken Mattson is probably the elephant in the room.
“If it was someone else — let’s say it was some regular person that cared about the community who said, ‘I want to build a plaza’ — yeah, we would probably take the time to listen to them,” resident Mary Samson acknowledged at the house meeting. “Because they would maybe have finished what they started.”
Mattson did not respond to requests for comment, but the project manager for the Springs Plaza Development Team, Daniel Crowley, emailed a statement Monday.
“We’re pleased with how productive the public meetings were last month,” Crowley wrote. “ … As we’re still in the listening stage to determine what the community views as the best use for a public plaza, it’s premature to comment regarding plans for the site. The feedback gathered from the community will guide our plans and the next phase of this process. We look forward to working together with the community on next steps.”
Mattson did speak for slightly less than 2 minutes at the Nov. 15 public meeting, telling the audience that he understands their concerns while stressing, like Crowley, that any ideas presented that night would be recorded and taken into consideration.
“I want to be very clear, there is no predisposed idea that we have set in our mind that this is how it’s going to look, and we’re just going to try and navigate to that point,” Mattson said.
To many who were in attendance that night, it wasn’t nearly enough to engender confidence.
“Without clarifying what he intends to do with the building, it doesn’t make sense for us to be ‘open’ about the plaza,” said Angela Marino, who attended both public sessions. “The problem is that we have no confidence in the developer, nor in the developer-county relationship.”
Community members like Marino wonder whether the proposed plaza site will soon look like the old Cocoa Planet building on Broadway in Sonoma, which sits empty nearly three years after Mattson’s team bought it, or the two massive houses at Highway 12 and Moon Mountain Road, cyclone-fence-encircled eyesores for several years now.
“(Mattson) has three projects along Sonoma Highway where there is seemingly no progress. Some of his real estate has sat vacant. I’m not excusing any of that. Ken Mattson probably has to move forward in a more concerted way to complete projects.”— Supervisor Susan Gorin
“They can’t afford to repair an E that’s fallen off the Cheese Factory sign (on the Sonoma Plaza),” Napoles said over the phone. “What makes me think they can complete an elaborate parking lot? If they have a plan to gobble up properties, we as a community need to know, and we need to fight back.”
On its face, a plan to create a neighborhood gathering spot in the Springs area would seem like an easy sell. It’s a community hard-pressed for recreational amenities and public spaces.
“Unlike many communities, there’s no sense of place unless you stop by a store, stop by my office — a lot of people hang out in front of my office,” project architect Michael Ross, whose firm RossDrulisCusenbery is a couple hundred yards south of the proposed site, said at the Nov. 15 public meeting. “There’s a yearning for that place to be in an outdoor atmosphere.”
Ross has been interested in helping to develop a Springs plaza for more than a decade, he said. In 2015, his office volunteered renderings that depict a streamlined area of benches and tables, framed by trees.
The county owns approximately 22,000 square feet of space, including about 45 parking spaces, tucked among three private properties, Ross said. If the parking lot were converted to plaza, it would remain public land.
Mattson owns the post office building to the south of the lot, and the former Church Mouse thrift store to the north. Karen Waikiki, proprietor of popular El Molino Central restaurant, owns the other northerly property, formerly Uncle Paddy’s Pub.
No matter what sort of businesses ultimately fill those buildings, they will want parking. To compensate the disappearance of the outdoor lot, Mattson proposes constructing a parking structure beneath the plaza.
Opponents seized on that, raising safety issues related to underground aquifers and utility lines. But Ross insisted the label “underground parking” is misleading. Because the property slopes 11 feet from the highway to its western edge, he envisions a lot beneath a raised podium.
Ross has worked with Mattson on other projects, but declined to address the widespread mistrust of his client.
“All I know is that Supervisor (Susan) Gorin and Mattson Partners approached us and said there’s opportunity here, could we assist in exploring,” Ross explained. “It’s something I really believe is a positive for our community and why I joined the team. Right now, all the players appear to be very serious about it, and with the best intentions.”
Residents acknowledge the need for outdoor spaces in the Springs. But they question the wisdom of partnering with a developer with such a perplexing track record. And they are asking for more transparency.
“I got the presentation, and there was just not any information,” said Hunter Mills, who moved to Sonoma two years ago. “They didn’t present a plan. It was so sparse and poorly presented that it didn’t give me a vision of what they had in mind. And when challenged, of course they didn’t answer.”
Gorin, whose district includes the Springs, said in an interview Thursday she secured $2 million for this project several years ago (a reserve that may now stand closer to $1.8 million). If it isn’t used for a Springs plaza, the money will revert to the county’s general fund.
It was Mattson who approached her with the development proposal, Gorin said.
“It’s just a process agreement for community engagement,” she said. “There’s nothing secretive about it. It’s an agreement to get to an agreement.”
The county recently earmarked a small amount of funding for staff time, and for payments to project planner Michelle Gervais, who was hired to facilitate the outreach effort.
Gorin knows it will take some heavy lifting to convince residents to do business with Mattson. That was evident in pointed comments at both November public meetings.
“I understand that,” Gorin said. “He has three projects along Sonoma Highway where there is seemingly no progress. Some of his real estate has sat vacant. I’m not excusing any of that. Ken Mattson probably has to move forward in a more concerted way to complete projects.”
And he has started to do that, Gorin argued. Mattson is making “slow progress” on those Moon Mountain Road parcels and is working to temporarily rehouse tenants while planning work at the Boyes Food Center property, she said.
The other site, the Lanning Structures at Bonita Way, calls for a commercial site employing stacked storage containers.
That project was “headed toward an early 2019 opening,” according to a June 2018 Sonoma Index-Tribune story. Four years later, Mattson is waiting for “a little dry weather” to get going on grading and digging, Gorin said.
If the county were to move forward with a partnership, the supervisor said, it would build “safeguards” into the timeline.
Some of her constituents remain wary.
“I don’t have 20 years to live out their overall development,” said Napoles, who is 71. “I want to know what they’ll do in the next year, the next three years, the next five years. Because if they have a 20-year agreement, which is what they’re talking about, I don’t want to live the rest of my life in a blighted area.”
You can reach Phil Barber at 707-521-5263 or firstname.lastname@example.org. On Twitter @Skinny_Post.