By DEREK MOORE
THE PRESS DEMOCRAT
Opponents of proposed chain-store restrictions in Sonoma won a victory last week when city leaders backed away from enacting a temporary ban.
But with a narrow majority on the City Council clearly favoring the concept, it’s probably only a matter of months before the city of 10,000 joins a select few nationwide that have such regulations.
Council Members Steve Barbose, Laurie Gallian and Ken Brown have signaled their support for reining in “formula businesses.”
Barbose chaired an ad hoc committee that has formulated recommendations that will be the basis of a draft ordinance that could come back to the council as early as next month, city staff members say.
The city Planning Commission, as well as the public, will have opportunities to weigh in on the proposals. If all goes as planned, an ordinance could be on the books by mid-summer.
Mayor Joanne Sanders conceded that Monday and said going forward she will “do anything to collaborate with my fellow council members who are in favor of this to tone it down a bit.”
Her main concern is with a proposal to ban chains that have more than 250 outlets from the city’s historic Plaza, a move that Sanders, a small business owner, fears could result in the unintended consequence of keeping out businesses that locals actually favor.
That includes Williams-Sonoma, which has announced plans to return to the city where Chuck Williams founded his first store in 1956.
The proposed Broadway location falls outside of the plaza area and would not be subject to a ban under the current proposals.
But Sanders views the issue symbolically.
“As it stands, without any changes, there still would be a ban on Williams-Sonoma from coming to the plaza,” she said.
Even outside the plaza area, the $3 billion retail giant would be subject to new use permit restrictions under the proposed ordinance, which defines a formula business as one that includes 10 or more outlets, excluding hotels, offices, financial institutions and other types of service businesses.
These businesses would have to get a conditional use permit to open, a process that could add two to three months to the planning process, city staff members say.
The plans by Williams-Sonoma were front and center last week when city leaders backed away from enacting a temporary moratorium on formula stores.
Barbose declined to be interviewed Monday. But in an email, he reiterated his support for an ordinance that “would be appropriate and beneficial to Sonoma.”
He did, however, say he is “open to discussion” about the number of stores that would meet the definition of a formula business.
Sonoma is not alone in trying to balance its economic and community interests. In Napa, a citizens group is lobbying city leaders to curtail formula businesses after word that Starbucks is interested in opening downtown across the street from a locally based coffee shop.
Calistoga subjects formula businesses to use permit review and bans formula restaurants and hotels downtown.
Sonoma’s proposed ordinance is modeled on regulations enacted in Fredericksburg, Texas, where in 2008 city leaders amended the zoning code to include rules that require formula businesses to apply for a conditional use permit.
Nationwide, a “very small number” of communities have such ordinances on the books, said Stacy Mitchell, a senior researcher with the non-profit Institute for Local Self—Reliance.
Carmel was the first, when the Monterey Peninsula city banned formula restaurants in the mid-1980s.
Mitchell said such regulations can benefit communities economically by protecting what is most unique about them.
“Sonoma has built its economic vitality on having a unique town center and a kind of ambience you can’t find anywhere else,” she said.