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GUEST OPINION: Quixote alive and well in Sebastopol

By now the rest of Sonoma County is probably tired of hearing about Sebastopol's tempest-in-a-teapot fight over the relocation of two retail outlets, one for Chase Bank, the other CVS Pharmacy. But larger issues are involved, some derived from national politics, some with comical overtones.

First, a little background. An old, run-down auto dealership used to occupy a corner where the two state highways intersect in the center of town; readers may recall seeing the several classic cars that were displayed in Pellini Chevrolet's windows on the site. It was a good location for a business that thrives on traffic, and this is why Chase and CVS and its agent, Armstrong Development, have been willing to endure years of petty politics over the design of new structures, driveways and a parking lot. Bear in mind that both of these firms are already located in Sebastopol, but in a shopping mall that is fed by only one of the highways, Highway 116.

The claim is made that if these two firms are permitted to proceed with their plans, traffic through town will increase and pedestrians will be discouraged from what they do best, which is to walk about town and buy stuff. Small-town stuff, such as incense candles, body oil and ice cream cones. If we allow cars to drive in and out of a parking lot to pick up a prescription or visit an ATM, they say, we are encouraging our "sweet" small town to become just another impersonal, noisy, polluting, car-centric haven for strip malls.

The problem with these objections is that Sebastopol is a classic crossroads town. Most of our traffic consists of people on their way to and from the Russian River or Bodega Bay. Sebastopol's business community thrives on the stops made by travelers seeking goods and services; most of its sales are made to customers, whether residents or travelers, arriving and departing by auto.

It is bizarre to suppose that the town can be reconstituted as an old-timey pedestrian-centric village simply by harassing a developer who wants to rebuild on property that is now an eyesore. A property that has always been valued precisely for its accessibility to passing motorists. The demand for an environmental impact study is a stalling tactic and a misuse of that important safeguard.

The group of activists that has been opposed to the development is working out its hostility to Big Pharma and Wall Street. Shepherd Bliss, in his Close to Home piece ("The reasons why Sebastopol's CVS/Chase debate will continue," Aug. 10), spends a long paragraph berating those two behemoths in the same language favored by the Occupy movement. Bliss, to his credit, in my opinion, has previously written in support of the larger goals of that same movement.

The people who attend Sebastopol's increasingly contentious City Council meetings reflexively hiss and boo at the mention of big business. They have also opposed two of the candidates for City Council, Kathy Austin and Kathleen Shaffer, both of them hard-working and accomplished women who have chosen a more moderate approach.

So it comes down to this: a romanticized past is hypothesized as a counter to the change that comes about through the natural ebb and flow of business cycles, shopping habits, and the needs and expectations of a market town. Design criteria are invented on the fly as an impediment to property owners seeking the "highest and best use" of what they own, as they are entitled by law to do. Environmental preservation is invoked in a chain of flimsy causality.

Citizens frustrated by gridlock in Washington and misbehavior on Wall Street lash out at any local outlet for mega-corporations whether or not their presence in town is a net good. Principles of law and fair play are treated as notional. In sum, the future of a small town and the most basic rights of its commercial property owners are threatened by hostility to businesses that are not locally owned.

(Grant Barnes of Sebastopol is director emeritus of Stanford University Press.)


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