City panel split on 'big-box' ban
While final preparations are being made for the Oct. 1 opening of Sonoma's new Staples store, the city's ad hoc committee, born in the "big-box" backlash to Staple's arrival, continues to search for an answer for what not everyone agrees is a problem.
The fact that Staples was able to move into the vacant Holder Ford building on West Napa Street, without a use permit or any other city oversight except Design Review, raised the specter of a big-box invasion, notwithstanding the fact that the Holder building, at 14,400 square feet, does not meet the conventional criterion of a "big-box" store.
And despite the fact that the Holder facility was already zoned commercial, had ample parking and didn't trigger a single condition that would have required a use permit, numerous citizens trooped to City Council meetings to express their alarm that the city had no safeguards against large chain stores moving into town.
In response to the outcry, and in recognition of the fact that current city building regulations don't actually address the issue of chain stores, an ad hoc committee was created, composed of two City Council members (Steve Barbose and Tom Rouse), two members of the Sonoma Valley Chamber of Commerce board (executive director Jennifer Yankovich and David Cook), two members of the Sonoma Planning Commission (Michael George and Matt Howarth) and two members of the public (Kelso Barnett and Ben Boyce).
Their charge was to explore regulatory options for addressing what they came to label "formula" stores, since "big-box" describes a store larger than virtually any commercial space available in Sonoma.
Underlying the committee's concerns and discussions through the three meetings held to date, is the unanimous desire to protect what is called the "Plaza Retail Overlay Zone" from the presence of fast food or other chain facilities not consistent with the historic and aesthetic nature of the Sonoma's core, iconic area.
To do that, committee members voted during a Monday night meeting, to endorse an outright ban on so-called "formula stores" that have 10 or more outlets. They then agreed that the ban should apply only to the Plaza retail zone, but that formula businesses seeking to establish stores in Sonoma outside the Plaza zone should be required to secure approval of a use permit.
And finally, on Monday night, the committee also voted to continue their deliberations by holding at least one more meeting.
Notably, the first three votes followed a 5-to-3 split, with both chamber of commerce representatives voting against a 10-outlet limit and Yankovich questioning the wisdom on any outright ban.
"I want people to understand that there is a use permit process in place," she said. A ban on chain stores with 10 or more outlets would have eliminated Ben & Jerry's, Massage Envy and Papa Murphy's, she pointed out. "I hear it everyday, the struggles our local businesses go through. Why not focus on what we want to have happen. There may be some wonderful, complementary (chain) businesses that want to come in here."
Rouse, participating via speakerphone from a Cleveland airport hotel room, said he didn't like the 10-outlet threshold idea either.
"I don't want a McDonald's on the Plaza. But I don't want a number. I want to protect the Plaza, I want to protect the gateway ... (and) I have no problem with Staples."
But a significant majority of the committee supported the 10-outlet limit as the only way to keep non-local, "formula" stores out of the core Plaza retail district.
And committee member Barnett warned that the gateway entrances to town - on Broadway and Sonoma Highway - also deserve committee scrutiny. "The City Council will ultimately have to decide if Quisnos is what people want to see entering town."
Several committee members expressed concern about what kind of commercial enterprise would eventually occupy the site of Sonoma Truck & Auto, now closed.
On a 6-to-2 vote, the committee agreed to convene again, in part to discuss the pros and cons of recommending the city adopt an evaluation process called a Community Impact Report, used by a number of cities nationwide, to measure all the fiscal, social, infrastructure, employment, tax revenue and other impacts potentially created by major proposed developments.
No date for the next meeting has been set.