Thursday, August 2, 2007

Planners Delay Decision On Chain-free Downtown

Staff presents plans to establish Historic Commercial District

By Nao Braverman
Eager to move forward on the issue, city staff members presented their first stab at writing a statute to keep chain stores from ruining Ojai’s small-town character, at Wednesday night’s Planning Commission meeting.
But after much deliberation, the planning commissioners, who had not participated in the six previous City Council discussions of the subject, decided that the issue was too complicated and delicate to rush into, and voted to consider the ordinance at yet another meeting.
City staff’s statute proposal included a prohibition of any new chains within the recently established Historic Commercial District, which runs roughly from CaƱada Street to Drown Street along Ojai Avenue and from Aliso Street to Topa Topa Street. A second zone outside that district would be regulated by new policies that would limit formula retail establishments to one per lot less than 40,000 square feet, and one per 20,000 square feet for lots that were more than 40,000 square feet. Moreover, new developments in the second zone would be limited to a total floor area of 2,000 square feet and no more than 25 linear feet of frontage. Formula retail would be limited to one per building to prevent the standard “anywhere USA” strip mall look. This, according to staff, would limit formula retail outside the HCD and make it very difficult for them to open without prohibiting them entirely. However, parcels that front Maricopa Highway, north of the “Y” intersection, would not be regulated at all.
The latter was of greatest concern to the handful of community members who voiced their concerns at the meeting.
“I think it might be more fruitful to try a regulatory moratorium that covers the entire city limits,” said Steve Sprinkel, an Ojai Valley resident and small business owner. “It keeps me out of the car and spreads my money around town.” At least seven other residents echoed his desire for a citywide moratorium and Scott Eicher, CEO of the Ojai Valley Chamber of Commerce, said that a the majority of people who responded to a local chamber of commerce survey said they didn’t want chains in the city at all.
Though most commissioners said they were initially pleased with the proposed ordinance at first glance, many were swayed by the slew of public speakers who urged them to consider a citywide ordinance.
City manager Jere Kersnar said that though other cities had passed citywide ordinances addressing chain stores, none of those cities had prohibited them completely.
Planning Commissioner Cortus Koehler who had carefully researched the legal implications cautioned staff that he had discovered a national chain store association that had been contributing thousands of dollars to a legal defense fund for years, and would have a bottomless pit of money with which they could litigate.
Commissioner Troy Becker countered that it was somewhat misgiving to rely completely on the city attorney.
“I don’t think we should not do it just because it has never been done,” he said.
Commissioner Susan Weaver raised the concern of providing for local residents as well as tourists. With the high prices and small variety of small businesses, locals would have trouble finding what they need in town.
“I think we should keep Ojai a living city,” she said, referring to the streets of Solvang where locals are scarce. She and other commissioners were also concerned about already existing chain businesses such as Radio Shack and Exotic Thai, that would not be able to develop or expand, with the proposed ordinance .
“If you can’t expand or improve your business you’re on your way out,” said Commissioner Paul Crabtree.
Weaver suggested writing an ordinance similar to the one used in Sausalito which regulates chain stores to fit with local aesthetics, but does not prohibit them.
Local resident Leslie Davis said that as a local she was able to get her shopping needs met in Ojai.
“If locals are willing to make certain concessions they can get most of what they need here, though they would occasionally spend more money,” she said. “But I grew up here and I am willing to go to Ventura for some things. We are a small town and sometimes you have to go out of town to shop.”
Most commissioners expressed interest in an approach similar to that of Sausalito’s which would regulate chain stores citywide without prohibiting them.
Becker said, however that since Sausalito’s ordinance does not outright ban chains, the public might be displeased.
Kersnar agreed to continue the discussion and invite the city attorney to answer legal questions since legality seemed to be an overarching concern in the debate.
Though he said he was pleased to see the commissioners’ careful consideration, Kenley Neufeld, author of a similar chain store ordinance that has already received 600 signatures from registered voters, urged the Planning Commission not to take too long in approving an ordinance.
“On Oct. 13 I will be turning in my ballot initiative if the city hasn’t drafted their own,” he said. “Personally I would love to see the city pass an ordinance beforehand and I would love not to turn mine in,” he said.
If his ordinance is not handed over to the city on the Oct. 13 deadline, Neufeld will have to start the process all over again, according to procedural regulations.
As Kersnar explained at a previous meeting, if the city authors the ordinance it is more malleable. However, a citizen’s initiative must be voted on each time a variation is made, at great cost to the city.
Though he would prefer the city to pass their own ordinance, if one is not in place by the October deadline, Neufeld said he will turn in his initiative as a responsibility to his supporters.
The topic of chain stores will be brought back to the next Planning Commission meeting, hopefully with the participation of the city attorney, said Kersnar.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Troubling that they would delay it
and for who's benefit and under
who's advice? Planning members are
very bright and experienced at what
they do- this makes them look less
so. They suffer from ailment known
as "group think" and in the past
have not questioned major projects changing the complexion of Ojai from now on.