Tuesday, October 16, 2007

Planners To Get Fine-Tuned Chain Proposal

Fast-food outlets, big box stores ruled out in designated downtown areas

By Nao Braverman
After a joint workshop between City Council members and Planning Commissioners on Sept. 19, Ojai’s city staff considered the comments of their constituents and drafted yet a third proposed city ordinance, intended to protect Ojai from the proliferation of chain stores.
The new draft, to be presented at tonight’s Planning Commission meeting, bans formula fast-food chains and so-called big boxes of more than 10,000 square feet, citywide, which would keep out even the smallest Wal-Mart or Costco and, of course, the formerly proposed Subway sandwich shop. It also adds additional restrictions to the size and frontage of businesses within Ojai’s already existing Downtown Commercial Land Use Designation, a portion of Ojai’s central downtown commercial area, slightly smaller than the proposed Historic Preservation District.
Though the new ordinance does allow formula businesses other than fast food to open in the city, their approval is contingent on a conditional use permit which requires public notification and a public hearing, thus providing an opportunity for the frequently requested public input from local residents on each and every chain opening within the city.
The new ordinance does, however, loosen its definition of formula business used in previous ordinance drafts from one that maintains 10 or more locations and employs two or more of the following characteristics: standardized merchandise or menu, standardized facade, standardized decor or color scheme, uniform apparel, standardized sign, trademark or service mark, to one that maintains 10 or more locations and employs three or more of the former characteristics. This modification was made to accommodate chain service businesses which local residents rely on. When city staff was asked to make a distinction between formula service and formula retail businesses at previous meetings, city attorneys cautioned that it would be considered discrimination to do so and thus could be deemed unconstitutional. But they recently discovered that by increasing the number of required standardized characteristics in the chain store definition from two to three, many service-oriented businesses would drop out of the formula business category all together. Most chain insurance companies, for example, may have 10 or more outlets, but like many other services-oriented businesses, do not share decor, facades or uniform apparel with other locations.
The new ordinance provides additional protection to the central downtown area by restricting formula businesses of more than 2,000 square feet and more than 25 feet of frontage from the city’s Downtown Commercial Land Use Designation which includes the north side of Ojai Avenue from Ventura Street to Montgomery Street, including the former Texaco station, and the Arcade Plaza as well as the Ojai Playhouse and Fitzgerald Plaza on the south side of Ojai Avenue.
Under these restrictions, if the owner of Starr Market decided to sell its business to Ralphs, the chain grocery would not be allowed to open without changing its sign, name or uniforms to fit Ojai’s small-town character since the current Starr Market building is larger than the 10,000-square-foot ordinance restriction for formula retail. This might prompt Planning Commissioners to consider a more lenient size restriction in order to accommodate grocery stores, city manager Jere Kersnar speculated.
“I don’t know if it will, but we will look at those considerations at the upcoming meeting,” he said.
Also to be considered is that technically the new ordinance would allow a Starbucks to open within the Arcade Plaza as long as it decided to give up one of its standardized features, maintain the Mission Revival-style architecture of the rest of the Arcade, paint the storefront Benjamin Moore Navajo White, and discard their traditional awning and green lettering.
They would, however, still be subjected to a review, where the public could rightfully bash or extol its pecuniary plans.
“We think this ordinance is reflective of what the council and commission wanted,” said Kersnar.
The Planning Commission meeting begins at 7:30 this evening at the City Hall Council Chambers.

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