Council takes up Staples questions
The proposed opening of a Staples office supply store in the vacant Holder Ford building on West Napa Street will be an agenda item for Monday's Sonoma City Council meeting.
An outpouring of citizen opposition, at least as measured by letters to the editor of the Index-Tribune and comments to some City Council members, greeted the news published here March 8. Councilmember Ken Brown placed the item on the April 4 meeting agenda to discuss the possibility of changing the city's development code to address the issue of what is commonly called "big-box stores."
The proposed Staples store will occupy the 14,400-square-foot building vacated by Holder Ford last year after the Ford Motor Company ended Holder's franchise agreement during an industry-wide trimming of auto dealerships. The building, at the intersection of Highway 12, West Napa Street and Riverside Drive, is owned by Chuck Holder, who still has a Ford dealership in Lake County.
In an email announcement, Brown explained that, "Proposals such as the one brought forward by Staples (are) of such magnitude, with the potential of significantly affecting the small town character of the City of Sonoma and its core business, (that they) may need to be subjected to more extensive analysis and study than the City's current development code requires."
Brown did not express an opinion about Staples in announcing the agenda item, but he did say he has received considerable constituent concern from people opposed to and upset about the imminent Staples opening.
A city staff report prepared for the council meeting notes that, "some members of the public ... have suggested that a proposal of this nature should be subject to additional review and that a moratorium of some type should be imposed that would halt this application in order to provide an opportunity for new zoning regulations to be developed."
According to Sonoma Planning Director David Goodison, state law would allow the city to adopt a moratorium under an "interim ordinance" that could be imposed for up to two years. But to do so requires a four-fifths vote of the council and must, according to state government code, address "a current and immediate threat to the public health, safety, or welfare ..."
Such an interim ordinance was adopted in 2007 when the council imposed a moratorium on the conversion to an owner-occupied subdivision of Rancho de Sonoma mobile home park. The park's owner, Preston Cook, promptly filed a $25-million lawsuit against the city which has not yet been resolved.
Goodison said that the interpretation of "public health, safety, or welfare" can be "pretty broad," but that a "significant finding must be made."
Objections to the Staples store focus on two issues. First, the potential loss of smaller stores, including Sonoma Valley Office Supply, Patt's Copy World, and Copy Store & More, all of which provide goods and services that Staples stores also provide, usually at lower prices. And second, a change in the small town character of Sonoma that so-called "big box stores" could precipitate.
But Staples supporters have pointed out that the size of the proposed store hardly qualifies as a big box. Wal-Mart stores average more than 200,000 square feet, Costco stores range from 70,000 to 205,000 square feet, and the average size of a Safeway store is 46,000 square feet.
According to a company spokesperson, Staples has signed a lease for the Holder Ford property and expects to open the store "later this year." Goodison has stated that a retail store such as Staples is a conforming use and does not require planning commission approval. A permanent ban on stores like Staples would require, at a minimum, a change in the city's development code, said Goodison, and possibly a change in the Sonoma General Plan as well.
The company has submitted remodeling plans and will have to submit to design review for any exterior façade and sign changes. The site has ample parking in the lot behind the building, and Goodison also said no traffic study will be required for the site.
Former mayor and three-term city council member Larry Barnett, who held office for 12 years, noted that there is no "big box" specification in the city's development code and he was skeptical one could easily be adopted, arguing that Friedman's Home Improvement, Rite-Aid and CVS Pharmacy are all nearly as big or bigger than the Holder building.
Barnett also questioned whether any company that was not of significant size could afford to lease the building. "I mean, what's going in there otherwise?" he asked. "What are we going to do, have a vacant building there."
A Staples spokesman said the planned store will offer full-service copying and printing services, along with computer set-up and repair and 7,000 products, including "great savings on core necessities for small businesses," like printer ink and toner, computers, accessories and countless other office products.
Staples stores are open seven days a week until 9 p.m.
Also on the Monday night council agenda will be an update on the state budget and how the current deadlock in Sacramento could affect the city's budget. The council will also conduct a first reading of a new proposed ordinance to regulate the use of leaf blowers, as well as a first reading of proposed changes in the city's sign regulations.