Warren & Janis Watkins

Most of us have heard their names around town or read their letters to the editor regarding local hotel development and excess tourism vs. small town quality of life. They’re intelligent, involved and outspoken.

Warren, a Laguna Beach native and former math instructor, came to Sonoma County to escape southern California tourism in 1973. He got a teaching job in Santa Rosa and built a house in Bennett Valley with his brother. This property, where Warren’s son Randall lives, is now the Watkins Family Winery and their wine is sold at the Raven.

Warren quickly became an active volunteer in Sonoma County causes. He had already joined the Sierra Club and soon became involved in setting planning standards for rural Bennett Valley. He also found a mentor in Ida Warner, a local environmentalist and council watcher.

Janis’ family moved to Sonoma County in 1952 and she grew up here. Her dad, Lloyd Harwood, had gone to UC Davis and worked as a Sonoma County farm advisor, providing agricultural research and services. He drove the whole county, making “farm calls”––advising on such things as tomatoes and the best grasses for cows. Janis enjoyed a rural childhood, growing up in Fulton and Guerneville. She went on to SRJC, UC Davis and then to UCLA School of Law.

Now a practicing attorney for 35 years, Janis has decades of involvement in politics, environmental and social justice causes. Currently, she is on the board of both Sonoma County Conservation Action and North Bay Organizing Project.

“I’m so grateful for my ag roots,” Janis tells me. “The seven acres where I grew up became a shopping center and much of the agricultural land of my youth has been paved over for subdivisions. I like a lot of alone time and the quietness of the land supports reflection and an appreciation for life.”

While in her first marriage and raising three children in the 1980s, Janis became interested in the controversy around the development of Santa Rosa’s Fountaingrove.

“I lived out on Parker Hill Road next to 500 undeveloped acres,” Janis remarks. “When I got involved, there was only one sympathetic councilperson. My daughter, Elizabeth, was so upset by the building of hundreds of homes that I found some of the survey stakes hidden under her bed. She and her friend created a book on what would be lost with the development and presented it to the city council.”

Warren and Janis met at a fundraiser for State Senator Noreen Evans in 1999. Their first date was a Boz Skaggs concert at the Raven. Since they had so much in common and both wanted the small town lifestyle, they thought, “Let’s go to a new place and live right in town.” Healdsburg was their choice and they moved here in 2004. Due to their years as activists, it was easy for both to dive into local issues.

Being community minded, they have contributed financially to many local projects –– such as the gazebo and the grandstands –– and have shown ongoing support for the Healdsburg Education Fund and local schools, Healdsburg Museum and the Russian Riverkeeper. They’ve also supported local progressive politicians like Mike McGuire and environmentalist Deb Fudge. However, much of their town involvement has been controversial.

“After we became interested in the general plan update, some people met at our home to discuss Saggio Hills,” Warren tells me. “We attended endless hearings, witnessing people swooned over by a fast-talking developer who promised a big regional park, 100 affordable housing units and a fire station, which we don’t think we’ll ever see. The city council totally ignored the fact that Healdsburg Ridge Open Space Preserve would be visually impacted.

“Healdsburg Citizens for Sustainable Solutions (HCSS) was created out of our opposition to Saggio Hills,” Warren continues. “Over 100 citizens fought that project in a lawsuit and we won the first round with Janis representing us. Our issue was that developers didn’t study a feasible alternative to their plan by addressing the impact of homes which would be ‘obtrusively visible’ on Healdsburg’s designated scenic ridgelines.”

“If you were to compare the square footage of Saggio Hills building space (the resort plus 70 mansions of 4,000-6,000 square feet) with the new Graton Casino, Saggio is twice as big,” Janis notes. “Both land parcels are about 250 acres, but we wonder if people have really considered the impact of 750,000 square feet of building right on the edge of our tiny town.”

“However,” Warren continues, “the developers did a second EIR (environmental impact report) with additional review and the City Council and the judge allowed it. They won this second round, and now Pierre Omidyar, the billionaire founder of eBay is funding the project. We think they may announce plans to start very soon.”

Warren and Janis oppose the belief that endless development is necessary to keep a city healthy. They believe in economic diversity vs. monoculture. They also contend that the increasing tourist industry must be considered in population statistics because of the ongoing environmental impact of tourism. Along with their friend, Bruce Abramson, they have become very involved in the local hotel controversy.

“Recently a group of citizens asked for a temporary moratorium on hotel building and the city opposed us,” Warren tells me. “We then spoke with the owners of the proposed H3, suggesting fewer rooms and onsite parking, and they agreed. We are also proud that HCSS generated a ton of letters regarding the Kessler hotel project and that corporation subsequently left town. While the city is doing its own studies, we’re planning a hotel initiative to be put on the November ballot.

“The run on hotels in the downtown is a symptom of a tourism tsunami,” Warren suggests. “An initiative of some sort is what we can do to retain the small town charm. Tourists circle and circle, looking for parking. We don’t think a downtown parking garage is in keeping with ‘small town character.’”

“We’re for reducing the number of hotel rooms because smaller hotels are lower impact,” Janis adds. “They usually don’t have accessory uses, such as a spa, restaurant and convention center. They attract a different kind of guest. The affordability of Healdsburg has greatly decreased and this is shutting people out. It’s becoming someone else’s town. We aren’t taking a ‘no growth’ position, but in considering all the things that contribute to small town character, we do ask the council, ‘Why would you sell our town’s soul for money?’”

Shonnie Brown is a local author and memoirist who is interested in fostering connections between people and their community. Shonnie writes personal and family histories through her business, Sonoma LifeStories, and is also a licensed Marriage and Family Therapist. She can be reached by e-mail at shonnie@sonic.net or on the web at www.sonomalifestories.com.

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