|Cotati managers ask for relaxed fast food restrictions
Planning commission told about huge commercial vacancies, postpones vote
The Cotati Planning Commission meeting for Tuesday, Feb. 19, had a controversial item on the agenda: the city's ordinance restricting formula businesses, such as fast food restaurants, inside the city limits.
In a formal presentation, Assistant City Manager Micah Hinkle told the commission the vacancy rate in Cotati's shopping centers varies from 40-70 percent, compared to 1.4 percent in Healdsburg and 4 percent in Sonoma. "That's huge," he said. "You can see it as you drive through them."
Hinkle explained this is a major reason why City Manager Dianne Thompson and Community Development Director Vicki Parker recommend relaxing the city's fast food restrictions. He said the city's reputation for not welcoming formula businesses discouraged not just fast food operations, but a variety of other businesses from considering Cotati as a location. He added the lack of stable national businesses makes it difficult for the owners of local shopping centers to attract traffic and obtain financing to improve their properties.
Thompson added, "Just having an ordinance like this sends a message to developers that we are not business-friendly."
Thompson said the proposed new ordinance would tell developers Cotati is adaptable and business-friendly. The proposal recommended three changes to the city's current ordinance:
- The city currently has a cap of eight formula businesses. Only three more businesses are permitted, all on Highway 116. Hinkle recommended eliminating this cap and judging new applicants on a case-by-case basis.
- Eliminate the provision no formula business can open more than one location in town. This would clear a path for Subway, which has expressed an interest in opening on 116.
- Eliminate the current 60-foot buffer zone between formula businesses.
Hinkle also stated all formula businesses are banned from the city's historic downtown district and would continue to be in the future.
The Planning Commission, which currently has four members instead of the typical five, voiced their opinions. Commissioner Lisa Moore, who works at Tubby's, a Cotati restaurant, said more fast food establishments would drain dollars from the local economy and cause financial difficulty for mom-and-pop restaurants such as Tubby's. Despite the fact her job at Tubby's creates a possible conflict of interest, Moore did not recuse herself from the deliberations.
Commissioners Neil Hancock and Ben Ford also were critical of the proposal. Hancock agreed with Moore about the impact on local character and the economy. Ford also agreed and questioned the accuracy of the data presented by city staff.
One commissioner, Jami Brady, disagreed strongly.
"I didn't realize we were the highest vacancy rate in Sonoma County," Brady said. "As a planning commissioner, I'm really not proud of that."
She added the citizens and business people she had talked to support relaxing restrictions in order to improve the local economy. She further stated that due to lack of local traffic, the Cotati Farmers Market will reduce its schedule from 16 Thursdays to 12 this summer.
The commission was faced with two choices - approve the recommendation and forward it to the city council for consideration, or disapprove. Instead, they chose a third option, which was not to vote and to ask city staff for more studies and more details to support their position.
Members of the public also spoke, and all opposed relaxing the fast food bans, and elaborated on the dark side of these businesses.
Jenny Blaker discussed the low wages paid to employees. Lauren Ornelas, director of the Food Empowerment Project, said she was "shocked that Cotati is moving backward when other communities are trying to limit fast food." She criticized the high sugar and salt content of fast food, and handed out brochures that promote food justice. Lillian Vaughan spoke in favor of the Slow Food movement as an argument in favor of regulating fast food establishments.
In the same meeting, the planning commission appointed their new officers for 2013: Ford as chair, and Brady as vice chair. No other decisions were made.