By Nao Braverman
Though Ojai is making some headway in creating an ordinance to protect the city from proliferating chain stores, the debate has become increasingly complex as discussions progress.
Instead of being presented with one ordinance to vote on, as originally planned, the City Council received three ordinance drafts to deliberate on at Tuesday night’s City Council meeting.
The first proposed ordinance, though heavily criticized by the planning commissioners and members of the public was still brought forth for a vote, if the council so pleased. A second hastily drafted revision by city attorneys, prompted by suggestions from the City Council was presented for a first reading, an unofficial third draft, authored by local resident and former council candidate Dennis Leary was also handed to council members for review.
In a consensus between commissioners and members of the public, the initial proposal to ban chain stores from a Historic Commercial District was rejected.
Commissioners said they thought the proposed district overlay, a central portion of the downtown area was too small, the area too arbitrary, and might have unintended consequences. They were also concerned about the existing chain stores within that district that would be prevented from expanding or remodeling. Several members of the public said they thought banning chains from such a small area would further invite them to open elsewhere in the city.
The neighboring city of Santa Paula does have a designated historic area within its downtown core. Though there is no ordinance banning or regulating chain stores from the designated historic area, it does have certain guidelines regulating the aesthetic appearance of businesses opening in that area, similar to Ojai’s regulations indicated in the city’s general plan.
Elisabeth Amador, assistant to Santa Paula’s city manager Wally Bobkiewicz, said that though the city does not have any specific regulations to prevent chain stores from opening in Santa Paula’s historic district, no chains have even shown interest in opening there. She attributes this to the size of the historic district’s storefronts which are far too small to accommodate most chains. Though some fast food restaurants might fit, none had shown any interest in opening there in Santa Paula’s recent history.
The same might be said for Ojai, if it hadn’t been for the Mira Monte Subway owner’s recent plans to open on Matilija Street.
In the city attorney’s second ordinance draft, the whole notion of a Historic Commercial District was scratched and replaced with a citywide regulatory ordinance. The new proposal would require all new formula retail establishments to apply for a conditional use permit. Thus it exempts and protects Ojai’s already existing formula retail establishments. The ordinance draft indicates that a simple change in ownership would not require a conditional use permit, protecting existing gas stations if they are to be sold.
The new ordinance proposal prohibits all new chains within the city from having more than 25 linear feet of frontage, having retail space occupy more than one story or two storefronts, and having more than 2,000 square feet of total floor area. But as commissioners suggested the proposed ordinance exempts banks and grocery stores which are a necessity, and might have trouble complying with the regulations. Only one formula retail establishment would be allowed in a lot less than 40,000 square feet.
For lots greater than 40,000 square feet, only one formula retail establishment would be allowed per 20,000 square feet of lot area.
The purpose of the newly drafted ordinance was defined as preserving Ojai’s “small town character” rather than its history.
Leary’s proposed ordinance also requires all formula retail establishments to apply for a conditional use permit and requires that they are designed and operated in an “unobtrusive manner to preserve Ojai’s distinctive character and ambiance.”
Though similar in essence to the city’s second proposal, Leary’s draft defines formula retail as any retail establishment that shares standardized features with at least five other establishments while the city’s definition is any retail establishment that shares standardized features with 10 other establishments.
“I think it is important to protect Ojai’s self-reliance,” he said. “The more outfits owned by a company, the less important each one becomes. If the economy crashes, the community needs its own establishments that can stand on their own.”
Leary said that his draft was written to help the city and that he did not intend for it to go to ballot.
Council member Sue Horgan and Joe DeVito said they agreed with the Planning Commission and would not support the city’s first ordinance proposal.
Though the city is working toward drafting its own ordinance, Horgan said she did not want to discourage Kenley Neufeld from turning in his ballot initiative to the city.
“Although we are working toward drafting an ordinance I cannot say for sure that we will create something that he is satisfied with,” she said. “I wouldn’t want to impede the public process.”