After days of making national news, Sonoma city leaders on Wednesday backed away from enacting a temporary ban on chain stores, a move some saw as a way of protecting the town's character and others likened to shutting out economic development.
The city for months has been embroiled in controversy over efforts to regulate "formula businesses." But the debate reached a new level last week when it was reported that retail giant Williams-Sonoma wanted to open a store on Broadway where Charles Williams got his start in 1956, but might be prevented as a result of those rules.
At Wednesday's contentious meeting, Councilman Steve Barbose said he supported the moratorium because he said it would have allowed city leaders to "take a deep breath and not have something like a Starbucks on the Plaza while we are grappling with this issue."
But Councilman Tom Rouse said a temporary ban would send the wrong message.
"The headlines aren't going to say we're imposing a 45-day respite from corporate America," Rouse said. They're "going to say Sonoma bans corporate America from coming to the gates."
The original proposal for a moratorium called for a city-wide ban on formula businesses, defined as "a restaurant, retail or personal service in a chain of ten or more like businesses offering a standard array of services." The council could have extended the moratorium for up to a year.
Barbose made a motion to limit the moratorium so that restaurants with more than 250 outlets would be prevented from opening in the city's historic Plaza. But he dropped that bid when it became clear that Rouse and Mayor Joanne Sanders would not support a ban of any kind.
The urgency ordinance required a four-fifths vote for passage.
The discussion about "formula businesses" was sparked by the opening of a Staples store last year in what had been the site of a Ford dealership. That led to the formation of an ad hoc committee, led by Barbose, that has formulated recommendations that will be the basis of a draft ordinance that city leaders are expected to consider later this year.
The proposal to enact a temporary ban in the meantime was met with significant public scrutiny after word about Williams-Sonoma's plans leaked out last Friday. With 253 stores nationwide, the $3 billion company could fall under new rules being considered in Sonoma.
The proposed Williams-Sonoma store is within the city's historical district but outside the plaza area, where the proposed regulations call for banning businesses that include more than 250 outlets.
Sanders said she heard from a number of people who said they were "appalled" that Williams-Sonoma might be prevented from coming back to Sonoma.
But Councilman Ken Brown accused the media of over-hyping the issue to try and sell papers, and he questioned the need to discuss the issue at all given the opposition to a ban from two members of the council.
"I appreciate the public comment, but my wife's going to Hawaii in the morning. I'd just as soon get home as early as possible tonight," he said.
The council heard from about 10 people, most who were against the moratorium.
"You have a strapped budget, you've reduced your rainy day fund, as I understand it, and here you are trying to impose your will on property owners also," said one Sonoma resident who did not support the moratorium.