For chain store strategy
The prospects of a Staples store, and now news of a potential Peet's Coffee outlet, has come as a shock to many Sonoma residents. This development has generated a storm of public concern, and an active campaign to block the application.
The council hearing on April 4 confirmed what many of us feared: under current city ordinances, there is no legal means to regulate any business from opening in any existing retail space, regardless of the effects on the local economy or the track record of the business. As the lawyer from Staples made clear, any attempt to block their application would trigger a lawsuit the city could not win.
Clearly, we need a policy mechanism to safeguard the city from having to accept, without question, inappropriate or economically exploitative applicants. Whatever our personal feelings about the value of Staples (which is actually better than average for the big-box retail sector in terms of wages, benefits and rates of full-time employment), the crisis precipitated by the Staples application points up the need for a policy tool to give the citizens, council, and staff a measure of control in determining the suitability of business applications. What if the proposed tenant was a 15,000-sq.-ft. mini WalMart (which is their new format)? How would we respond?
The Community Impact Report (CIR) is a commonsense public policy measure that simply provides a balance sheet for city staff and City Council members with which to make informed decisions on proposed development projects. Every household employs the same method to balance its budget: the benefits must outweigh the costs. That's all. The CIR is used in many municipalities around the country, and was recently made a state law in Maine, under the title, "The Informed Growth Act ." The CIR is a policy tool that provides decision-makers the spectrum of metrics necessary to properly evaluate the full impact of proposed projects, not just the gross sales tax revenue numbers, which is what passes for a conventional "economic analysis."
A CIR is a relatively inexpensive study, similar to the EIR (Environmental Impact Report) but cheaper. A typical CIR is about a tenth of the cost of the legally mandated EIR. The EIR examines the impacts on physical infrastructure, but it is silent on critical social and economic impacts of projects. The CIR provides a full accounting of the total costs to the community, including the readily measurable costs to the taxpayers: public healthcare costs, affordable housing vouchers, school lunch programs, subsidized childcare, food stamps, added police and fire services. These public sector services are drained by low-wage, low benefit-level employers. These externalized costs are measured by a CIR.
The CIR permits the public and political leaders the opportunity to incentivize approval of developments that create quality jobs with good benefits that will sustain the economic health of the city. Displacement of locally-owned small businesses and the negative economic effects of out-of-state chain stores are accounted for in a CIR.
The CIR provides meaningful metrics for assessing the effects of a proposed project on existing small businesses. That's because it examines the net gains in sales tax revenues rather than the empty claims of gross sales tax revenue that constitute the typical so-called "fiscal impact study" developers submit as part of their pitch for project approval.
The city council, to its credit, considered this issue carefully at Monday's meeting, and directed staff to come back with a report laying out the various options for plugging this obvious hole in the use permit code. We believe that a Community Impact Report (CIR) is good public policy that gives the city a necessary tool to help shape its economic development and help retain the character of a city which has been described as one of the most attractive in the United States by international travel magazines.
We are like the beautiful girl who doesn't have to get married to the first guy with a little money jingling in his pocket who proposes to her. We are considered a prime destination, and we have the right to preserve that coveted status.
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Ben Boyce is a Sonoma Valley resident and is director of the Accountable Development Coalition.