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A historic turn? – Sonoma League for Historic Preservation at the crossroads

Posted By Sonoma Valley Sun On September 5, 2013 @ 9:06 am In Features | Comments Disabled

Linda Blum | Sonoma Valley Sun

The Sonoma League for Historic Preservation. What is the current role of this venerable organization? Has the direction changed; has the focus blurred? And what’s behind a string of resignations from long-time members?

The League has been a viable presence in Sonoma since 1969, formed by a group of residents that feared unruly development in the area might overwhelm the historic character of the town by ignoring and replacing its lovely old buildings or landscapes. In the absence of codified regulations in Sonoma, this group took on the role of watchdog for the cultural artifacts of the past.

The original Mission Statement reads in part, “To promote and educate interest in the preservation and enhancement of Sonoma… to assist governing bodies in the accomplishment of the foregoing objectives… and to collect, preserve, own and display…records…pertinent to historic preservation and the history of the area.”

During the first decades of existence, these goals were accomplished with vigorous support by the membership. Designated advocates regularly attended City Council and Planning Committee meetings to keep a careful eye out for possible irresponsible development or destruction, or a poor re-design of historically or architecturally significant structures or landscapes.

They were able to save and help restore the Toscano Hotel, now a State- owned site, but still staffed by League docents, the Gen Joseph Hooker (Vasques) House, and the Maysonnave House, all of which were entrusted to the League to maintain, with the help of government grants, donations, and member dues.

In 1978, the League began an important and massive task: to create a survey of all the sites in Sonoma that could be considered worthy of saving due to its historic architecture, or a connection to an important person or event. Thus began the Historic Resources Survey, which over time came to assess almost 700 properties in the town as having historic merit, and which should be monitored.

For most of its history, the League has had a membership that included many professionals in the fields of architecture, landscape design, archeology, and history. They all felt the need to push back against the tide of modernization for its own sake, and the developers who only looked at the present for profit, and never to the future. Whereas the League members saw the future of Sonoma as being a poorer place without the reminders of its colorful past, and therefore involved themselves in the planning process.

These profit-seeking developers and property owners still exist, of course, even stronger than before, but it has been suggested by disillusioned members, that the League’s strength has been weakened in recent years by forces within.

Is this true, or just perception? We can look at some basic changes and then decide.

In 1980, Harriet Jones, the owner of an historically important adobe residence at 143 W. Spain Street, granted an easement on the property to the SLHP, to retain in perpetuity. An easement is a legal right to use some aspect of another person’s property (in this case, to review any proposed changes to the adobe that might be detrimental).

This virtually intact adobe dates to 1842, when General Mariano Vallejo gave the property to his brother, Salvador Vallejo, who then built his “small adobe” behind his large house, which is now where the El Dorado Hotel sits.

Succeeding owners honored this contract, but in 2011 the house was sold to a commercial entity, a winery, and the easement was ignored.

The seller had assured the neighbors and the Planning Commission that the buyer, Three Sticks Winery, was planning only to use the space for corporate offices, but this eventually morphed into offices plus wine tasting by appointment, and a parking lot.

All of these changes, heavily criticized by the residential neighbors, were implemented  through a catch-all section of the City Development Code: Adaptive Re-use of Historic Structures, which aims to make historic entities more economically viable. As one current member of the SLHP Board pointed out, “Historic designation lessens the commercial value” of a property. As it happens, the speaker was the seller of the property, Robert C. Demler.

How then does this sale and re-use of a significant residence and garden on West Spain reflect on the current League?

There have been a number of beneficial projects undertaken by the League in recent years. Collecting the scattered documents and photos owned by the League into a cohesive archive in the Maysonnave House is one. And now the current planned digitizing of these hard copies, and the removal to secure storage of the papers is another. These tasks have been ably overseen by Yvonne Bowers, Dr. Peter Meyerhoff, Bob Garant and Jason Bell.

The League has also positioned itself in support of establishing a Certified Local Government. This is a national program designed to establish standardized criteria for communities to identify and reserve historic properties. This proposal is now with the City Council.

But, according to sources who are former and current members, the quality and the focus of the leadership has changed. Perhaps an inevitable result of a dwindling and somewhat less active membership, the work of upholding the League’s principals evolved to a smaller group, and oversight became lax, to the extent that the most prominent and active committee, the Preservation Committee, which included the Conservation Easement Committee, was arbitrarily disbanded without a member’s vote, by the current president, Barbara Wimmer. Interestingly, this commission was a group with stellar credentials for preservation work – with degrees in architecture, history, and city planning and with ties to the National Trust for Historical Preservation.

Several sources say that the current board has alienated many of the long-time members to the point where they resigned, by changing the League’s culture of preservation to one that’s now very open to change, wherever that might lead.

In March 2013, some members were so concerned by this perceived shift that they penned a letter stating that “Past as well as present members of the Preservation Committee of the Sonoma League for Historic Preservation have serious concerns… regarding the future monitoring of the Easement which the League owns over the Salvador Vallejo Adobe… at a recent board meeting, Board President Barbara Wimmer informed board members that she was transferring the review process of the League’s easement to a new committee made of the League president, vice president, and Preservation Committee chair. This action was taken without a vote of the board… it is also noted that the current vice president of the League, Robert C. Demler, is president of the Advisory Committee for the Salvador Vallejo Adobe, while serving on the League’s Easement Review Committee. It is our view that this represents an inherent and very real conflict of interest, especially since Mr. Demler is the seller of the property at 143 West Spain Street.” This was signed by a majority of the former Preservation Committee members.

Another point of contention: Ms. Prema Behan, the C.O.O. of Three Sticks Winery, who bought the adobe from Demler, has recently been appointed to the League Board.

Still, the League has endured for over 40 years, and if it can attract new members, and galvanize the existing ones to tackle the all-volunteer efforts of preserving the character of Sonoma, perhaps all this internal turmoil will eventually sort itself out.

Meanwhile, former members liken the current leadership to a fox in the hen house. Maria Biasetto, a former member and a generous donor to the League, stated that she felt driven to resign after 20 years as the Corresponding Secretary after her Board position was eliminated, again without a vote. But more importantly, she believes the direction has veered.

“Instead of watchdogs, they became accomplices,” she said.


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