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Sebastopol’s Formula Businesses Ordinance


Sebastopol’s Formula Businesses Ordinance

By Shepherd Bliss

Mayor Patrick Slayter opened Sebastopol City Council’s July 7 public hearing on a proposed ordinance regulating formula businesses by correcting the use of the word “ban” to describe it. “This has never been a discussion about a ban; it has been a multi-year discussion about how to guide development and retain local control.”

The ordinance’s goals include preserving Sebastopol as a “special environment” and to “protect its existing character.” The next step is for the Council to make revisions, based on the public hearing, and introduce it for a tentative decision.

“Any business can apply to the Planning Commission for a use permit. If it has ‘standardized architecture, color schemes, decor and signage,’ according to a draft of the ordinance, it may not be accepted,” explained City Manager/Attorney Larry McLaughlin.

“A business willing to customize itself to Sebastopol could be accepted. The application is reviewed, weighing its various elements, to determine whether enough of the characteristics of a formula business are present.” That determines whether “the business is, or is not, the type which the ordinance seeks to prevent,” McLaughlin added. Applications are considered on a case-by-case, individual basis. 

The City intends to “create restrictions and procedural requirements regarding specified ‘formula’ businesses,” explained Planning Director Kenyon Webster.

Vice Mayor Sarah Gurney noted that public discussions and hearings have occurred over the last two and a half years. An interim ordinance was agreed upon in 2013. The Planning Commission and staff hosted numerous public meetings to draft the ordinance.

Councilmember Robert Jacob lamented a previous City decision to block Amy’s Kitchen from locating in Sebastopol. He described that unique restaurant and was sorry that it went elsewhere. Jacob advocated helping find “a sweet spot” for it, as well as other businesses that would benefit Sebastopol. 

Those opposing the pending ordinance contended that regulating cookie-cutter businesses, such as CVS Pharmacy, would reduce options to purchase lower-cost products.

Bay Area attorney John McNellis, co-owner of the Redwood Marketplace shopping center on the edge of town, testified. He noted that Chase and West America banks recently left that center, as did Baskin Robbins ice cream. “We now have three spaces for lease,” he reported.

McNellis added that if Lucky’s supermarket left the center, it would be a serious loss. He said that 1/3rd of Sebastopol residents make under $35,000 a year and depend on markets like Lucky’s and Safeway. The ordinance would apply only to new businesses.

Patricia Dines and Magick Altman focused on ethics. They described the external costs of products, such as the child labor and low wages paid workers in countries where such products are made for corporations like Wal-Mart. Cheap clothing made in Bangladesh’s unsafe factories, for example, have resulted in hundreds of women workers dying in fires.

Whereas the interim ordinance had a 10-establishment threshold, the current proposal prohibits businesses with more than 25 locations, except in shopping centers. This change accommodates small regional businesses, such as Sole Desire, a shoe store with 15 establishments, and Mary’s Pizza Shack, which has 20 establishments. Exemptions include formula businesses under 5,000 square feet outside the downtown.

“Councilmembers have a responsibility to protect the assets of our community,” noted Una Glass. “Sebastopol's biggest asset is its unique character and small town feel. This draws people and commerce to our community. At issue is how to protect this asset.”

At this week’s free weekly summer concert in Ives Park, Glass described the ordinance as “a reasonable compromise that can permit chain stores in shopping centers.”


(Shepherd Bliss {} teaches at Dominican University, farms in the Sebastopol countryside, and has contributed to two dozen books.)



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