History has shown that one of two things is likely to happen when a city seeks to raise the regulatory draw bridge and prevent chain stores from moving into town.
One, they create a system of rules that is so uncompromising the community ends up mired in debate over who is left outside the castle walls. Or, two, communities create a system of rules that is so broad that, in the long run, it makes little difference in defining the mix of businesses in town.
The city of Sonoma faces such possible outcomes today as the City Council considers a moratorium on chain businesses as well as a new system of rules to keep out "formula" businesses.
The difficulty is defining what is a formula business and how to make sure that unwanted businesses stay on the other side of the moat.
This is certainly not a new issue. The North Coast has been going through debates like this for years, including in 1999 when Calistoga adopted a similar ban.
Under the narrow rules that were proposed at the time, Calistoga would have defined Copperfield's, the beloved Sonoma County book vendor, as a chain because it had eight stores and would have prevented it from branching out there.
Sonoma is now in jeopardy of falling into a similar trap as the Williams-Sonoma retail chain, which started in downtown Sonoma in 1956, wants to move back into town. But under the rules being discussed tonight, that may not be possible.
In addition to enacting a moratorium, the city is considering regulations that would ban businesses that include more than 250 outlets. Williams-Sonoma is now a $3 billion company with 268 stores nationwide.
The city is looking at having an even tighter definition of chain stores within the plaza area. There, formula businesses would be defined as "a restaurant, retail or personal service in a chain of 10 or more like businesses offering a standard array of services."
Nobody wants to see the Sonoma Plaza encircled by fast-food restaurants and boiler-plate retail stores. But there's little evidence to suggest that is a real risk.
This debate was triggered last year when Staples sought to open a new store in a 14,000-square-foot building on West Napa Street that formerly housed a Ford car dealership.
Rather than limiting its discussion since then to how to prevent big-box stores, the city has waded into the murky waters of how to limit "formula" businesses. The risk is that these rules can easily end up being a form of protectionism against competition for some retailers who may or may not be providing the best service or products for consumers. And an exemption for local chains is an invitation for litigation.
The best way for cities to define the look and feel of their business districts is to set clear limits on size and design. When communities seek to determine the winners and losers based on use — the type of business rather then the size — it's a slippery legal and moral slope.
We encourage Sonoma to tread lightly. For the time being, we see no evidence to justify the adoption of an outright ban. Preventing a Williams-Sonoma from moving to Sonoma is hardly reason to take such swift action.
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