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Has the Mill Valley Chamber of Commerce Board of Directors Lost Touch with the Community?

Recent actions by the Mill Valley Chamber of Commerce Board of Directors bring into question if they represent the opinions of the businesses and community they serve.

As Jim Welte related in his recent article about the Mill Valley Chamber of Commerce, “,” the chamber's board sent a letter to the city of Mill Valley Planning Commission and held private meetings with commissioners to lobby for revisions to our zoning code. Among the changes they are seeking are the elimination of public notice and public hearings for almost all downtown properties and removal of code wording (‘formula retail and restaurant language’) that offers zoning protections against chain stores and franchise businesses downtown. 

These changes could have a significant impact on the future of Mill Valley and the character of our downtown. In particular the letter recommends that the “trigger” for a “conditional use” public notice and public hearings be increased from its present limit of 1,500 square feet of selling space to 4,000 square feet of total space. In other words, if a new business wants to rent a space downtown, so long as that space is less than 4,000 square feet, there would be no public notice or public hearing or Planning Commission or City Council input on whether or not that business is appropriate or otherwise in compliance with the spirit or intent of our General Plan. It would be automatically permitted.

Keep in mind that the 1,500 square foot “trigger” does not restrict any business from occupying more square footage. It just requires the application’s approval or denial to be reviewed at a public hearing. So the existing code is a public protection against businesses that could harm smaller, less capitalized locally owned businesses or negatively impact our town’s character, not a restriction against larger businesses, as the chamber’s letter incorrectly characterizes it.

To put into perspective how impactful such a change might be, it would allow most of the types of small footprint chain stores you now find in the Corte Madera Town Center and Village shopping centers to come and set up shop in downtown Mill Valley without any ability to stop them. It would also invite property owners to combine existing retail spaces to accommodate larger tenants whom they could charge higher rents.

This provision would also have allowed Subway to open regardless of the public’s opposition. Considering that the petition against Subway quickly garnered the signatures of more than 1,200 residents and over 100 Mill Valley businesses (and almost all the businesses downtown), it’s hard to understand why the Chamber would be so out of touch with public opinion. In order to understand the situation better, I decided to do some research.

First I wanted to know just how many businesses there are in Mill Valley and how many of them were members of the Chamber of Commerce. The Business Licensing person at the City told me that there are perhaps as many as 800 businesses in Mill Valley that are “bricks and mortar” businesses – in other words businesses that rent commercial space and offer goods and services. On top of that, a few hundred more rent small spaces or share spaces here and there that are not licensed. Home-based businesses push the current consensus total guesstimate to about 2,400 businesses in Mill Valley.

The next thing I wondered was how many businesses were members of the Chamber of Commerce. I thought this was important to know because the Chamber always presents itself at public hearings as being “THE CHAMBER OF COMMERCE” and the voice of Mill Valley business. And the Chamber enjoys special access to city officials, is always given special treatment at public hearings (no 3 minute limits for them), they get free office space from the City (okay, it’s more like a closet but it is free), they get free support services from city agencies for some of their events, and the city has even bailed them out financially when they needed money. So understanding just who these people represent seemed important. So I called the Chamber and asked them how many members they had and who they were.

The person who answered the phone said she didn’t know but it was on the website. I explained that it wasn’t and showed her that although they have a services directory, they don’t list their dues paying members. Then she asked me who I was, so I told her. She asked me why I wanted a list, and I told her I just wanted to know and growing more puzzled at this “teeth pulling” conversation, asked her if the list was some kind of secret. She hesitantly said she thought it might be about 200 to 230 members then went back to grilling me about what I was going to do with the list. I got tired of this so I gave her my phone number and asked if someone could call me about how to get a list of members. No one called me back. 

This was the most curious conversation I’ve ever had with Chamber of Commerce or similar types of organizations (and I used to have to call dozens of them around the country when I was a real estate developer). The normal response is gracious, inviting and super helpful. In other words, the exact opposite of what I experienced calling the Mill Valley Chamber.

But what is most puzzling to me about this is that as a nonprofit organization, the Mill Valley Chamber is regulated by an elaborate list of federal and state laws and special rules. And among those regulations is one that says that their financial records, lists of donors or dues paying members, must be made available to anyone for any reason upon request. Hmm… perhaps the Mill Valley Chamber didn’t get the memo.

For the sake of discussion, let’s say the Chamber has about 225 members, which means that at best it represents about 9 percent of Mill Valley businesses (225 is about 9 percent of 2,400). Now one would think that if the board of directors of the Mill Valley Chamber sent a letter to the city, asking for changes in business zoning regulations and implying that they were speaking for their members, that that letter would have been based on some kind of polling or vote of their membership. However, it appears that’s not the case.

When a few community members called and emailed the owners of several downtown businesses, they discovered that not only didn’t the Chamber board confer with them before sending out their letter but that these members were taken aback that the Chamber could take such a position. But anyone could have guessed this would happen since almost every downtown business signed the petition against Subway, a “formula” chain store that was only stopped because of the existing 1,500-square-foot rule that required a public hearing.

So I think it’s legitimate to ask who exactly the board of the Mill Valley Chamber of Commerce represents. I also wonder if the Chamber has procedures and rules in place governing how they conduct themselves publicly, as would be expected for an organization that takes taxpayer funds and enjoys special access to City Hall. Since no one’s called me back, I suppose I’ll never know.

There are several other things about the Chamber board’s actions that I find disturbing.

That an organization like the Chamber would promote its own agenda is to be expected. But that the Chamber Board would want to open the door to larger chain store tenants seems very out of touch with the wishes of the community to protect and preserve the most special thing about Mill Valley, the small town character of our downtown.

As I said, the letter was signed by the entire board of the Chamber, including Mill Valley Mayor Garry Lion. What is surprising is that Mayor Lion would put his name on a letter that attempts to influence public policy on an issue that is still under deliberation by our Planning Commission. That’s always been a “no comment” situation for our elected officials. But what’s even more odd is that Mayor Lion would endorse the Chamber’s controversial recommendations knowing full well that it will taint the 2040 General Plan Update process before it’s even had a chance to get underway. One would hope that a public official in this situation would have recused himself at the outset.

Chamber board members made some strange comments about small businesses at the Planning Commission meeting when their letter was presented. As reported in the Mill Valley Patch, among them was that smaller rental spaces should be discouraged because small businesses using smaller spaces “drive lower rents, which tends to attract under-financed entrepreneurs with a misguided vision.” The incongruity of Mill Valley endorsing public policies that are “anti-entrepreneurial” aside, I’d ask the Chamber Board to consider that among those “under-financed entrepreneurs” with ”misguided vision” they’d find Banana Republic, the Sweetwater, Smith and Hawken and Piazza D’Angelo when they first opened their doors, and pretty much every great little entrepreneur we have left in downtown including Stefano’s Pizza, Famous for our Look, Two Neat, 142 Throckmorton, and Tony’s Shoe Repair and The Depot Bookstore, among others. And this coming from the board of an organization that says it promotes a thriving business environment?

It seems that the Chamber leadership seems to have forgotten something far more important than square footage codes and rental costs. The vibrancy and financial success of our downtown is not based on the various businesses that decide to open shop here, as the Chamber seems to believe, but rather on the residents and visitors who decide to come and spend their money here. And the number one reason that they come from around the world to do that is because of Mill Valley's "small town character." That special sense of place and ambience, that small-scaled environment that invites them to stroll down winding streets past little shops and stop and talk with neighbors and local business owners. And it’s that small town character that offers businesses the opportunity to thrive here, not vice versa.

I would just suggest that it might pay to remember that.

This post is contributed by a community member. The views expressed in this blog are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Patch Media Corporation. Everyone is welcome to submit a post to Patch. If you'd like to post a blog, go here to get started.

Anne Tique August 09, 2012 at 05:51 PM
Illuminating counterpoints. I would like to hear the discussion of our "small town character" go beyond the appeal of the store-fronts and address what is available beyond the facades. Mill Valley has become a town where the monied can purchase boutique items but those of necessity beyond food are not part of our downtown array. I would like to shop locally, but cannot for things I need.
Michael Dyett August 09, 2012 at 06:09 PM
I think these are all excellent points, and I think the Planning Commission has struck the right balance. I offer this perspective as co-Chair of the Miller Avenue Design Advisory Committee and a practicing City Planner. Michael Dyett, FAICP
Liz Williamson August 09, 2012 at 08:52 PM
Bob, You totallly get their number. I used to be a chamber member and was even part of new membership and ambassador committee off and on for about 7 years. There was so much I disaggreed with in their actions, I no longer wanted my name and buisness associated with The Chambers. Since I have left who ever is now on the board has lost touch with reality and what a City Chambers is supposed to be about! I knew they were up to no good, when one of the board members stood up to speak at The Subway meeting. This man stood up only to say he was a proud Board Member of the Chambers and was instructed not to speak. How rediculous is that? I have been recieving the chamber newsletters regarding the zoning; I knew it was only a matter of time before they chose a side. If they want to become a political advocacy group, which in my opinion this is what they are doing, then no way no how should The City be giving them money to do so. Because the majority of it's members do not follow all the politics of downtown Mill Valley, I can't imagine the majority its' members are even aware the board is speaking on their behalf. As far as Gary Lyon's signing the letter, It doesn't surprise me. I can't remember what the issue was, but he has done this before. He also tends to waffles between two sides of an issue. Don't be surprised if you see his signature on a petition opposing the new zoning too.
Thrasy Bulus August 09, 2012 at 09:40 PM
Excellent analysis Bob. Everyone should come out to the meetings to oppose the Chamber in its 11th hour attempt to hijack the zoning change process.
Bob Silvestri August 09, 2012 at 11:03 PM
Comment sent to me via email: Good article Bob. Your conclusion is spot on. People often confuse demand and supply. But you are absolutely right. The only reason Baby Gap and Subway want to come to Mill Valley is because there are lots of people coming to Mill Valley for its small town, bohemian character. Richard C. Ronald Skyline Pacific Properties, LLC
Burton Miller August 10, 2012 at 12:57 AM
The Chamber Board has failed on two counts - once for undermining community values and once for undermining our small town business culture. It's astounding that the Chamber Board could be so out-of-touch with and disrespectful of local planning history and sentiment. They promoted their agenda somewhat secretly at a time when Subway opposition was most pronounced. The planning mechanisms in place have served residents and business owners alike well for over 20 years, as evidenced by Mill Valley's character-defining mix of smaller local businesses. Mr. Silvestri's points are well-taken. If the Board in fact crafted their scheme to defeat long-established protections without the support of downtown merchants, they should retract their letter without delay.
RD August 10, 2012 at 05:16 AM
I think yes the board has lost touch. Let's not ruin downtown. Why would anybody be scared of a public hearing....unless they thought a public hearing would work against them, or they had something to hide. - Bob: what can we in the public do to help?
Bob Silvestri August 10, 2012 at 05:59 AM
Spreading the word and inviting others in the community to get involved is always a good idea. Send a link to this article to Chamber members and other local business owners you know and write to the City supporting the importance of preserving our zoning codes that ensure an open and transparent public process, and protect Mill Valley's unique small town character. Thanks.
Bob Silvestri August 10, 2012 at 05:10 PM
For more community comments on this issue see: http://millvalley.patch.com/articles/chamber-pushes-back-on-city-s-proposed-biz-zoning-changes
Bob Silvestri August 10, 2012 at 07:44 PM
The following response to my blog from Suzanne Burrows, the Vice Chair of Operations on the Board of the Mill Valley Chamber of Commerce, was forwarded to me. I am the Vice Chair of Operations on the Board of the Mill Valley Chamber of Commerce. I am stunned that anyone would send an email to people they don't even know with links to a blog (not an article) that contains factually incorrect information as well as a completely biased and wrong analysis of the Chamber's current position on these matters. This blog is inflammatory and makes accusations that are simply not true. I don't know where Mr. Sylvestri is getting his information. He certainly has never made any attempt to speak to the Chamber Board about the issues he is writing about. If he had bothered to talk with us instead of writing this diatribe he might have found out that we are in the process of modifying our views with regard to some of the issues he references and that we actually share a common vision. That said, taken as a whole the proposed changes to the zoning code are broad and complex and have the potential to have a significant impact on both the community and businesses in Mill Valley. The Chamber believes that they need to be carefully examined, discussed and be decided in the context of the 2040 General Plan update which just got underway this spring.
Bob Silvestri August 10, 2012 at 07:44 PM
Continued response: The General plan update needs to inform the direction of the any major zoning code update including the major one that the planning commission is currently working on. When it appeared that the Planning Commission was poised to vote on the changes this summer in advance of the completion of the General Plan update and without any feedback from that process, we asked the commission to slow things down and get more in sync with this process. To assert that the Chamber Board is out of touch with the community is ludicrous. Our Board is probably one of the most civically engaged Boards in recent years. Our volunteer board members attend almost every planning commission meeting and City Council meetings as well as other city meetings when appropriate. Three of our board members are also serving on various General Plan update committees. Quite a number of our board members are long time and well respected members of the Mill Valley business community with a deep and unquestionable committment to the health and vitality of our town --- individuals such as Doug Canepa (Mill Valley Market), Paolo Petrone (D'angelos, Mill Valley Inn, Acqua Hotel), Ann Aversa (La Ginestra) among others.
Bob Silvestri August 10, 2012 at 07:45 PM
Continued response: The Chamber is interested in engaging in an open dialogue, looking at these complicated issues from different perspectives, raising questions and concerns when appropriate, and finding solutions that incorporate sound policies that support a thriving economy and the unique character of our town. To imply otherwise is wrong. Whoever you are, I hope that you will share this email with your list, and at the very least Mr. Sylvestri. The kind of communication Mr. Sylvestri is engaging in is divisive and self serving and doesn't contribute to a healthy productive conversation with regard to these matters. Sincerely, Suzanne Burrows
Bob Silvestri August 10, 2012 at 07:53 PM
My response to the Chamber Vice Chair: My blog is simply asking questions and commenting on information that I read in the Chamber's letter to the Planning Commission and that I observed in watching and reading about the hearing proceedings, and from calling the Chamber requesting information (which I never received) and talking with other community members. The Chamber's positions on zoning and planning matters are stated in their letter, which is now attached. I urge everyone to read the Chamber's letter and watch the taping of the hearing and decide for themselves on these issues. I am simply asking questions that as a Mill Valley resident and taxpayer, I believe I have the right to ask. If the Chamber feels that their letter is unclear, then I would ask that they issue a public statement to clarify any positions they feel might have been misunderstood.
Suzanne Burrows August 10, 2012 at 08:48 PM
Bob -- First, a big apology for the way your phone call to the Chamber office was handled and that you never received a call back. Unfortunately the day you called, our office administrator was on vacation (she still is) and we had a temp handling our calls. She really didn't know the answers to your question. Again our apologies and if you still have further info requirements, I urge to to speak to our new Executive Director, Daniel Escalzo. As I stated in my response above, we are in the process of gathering additional data and information, to help us refine and modify some of the concerns that we raised in our April letter. These are such important issues and we want to feel confident that the right combination of zoning regulations and controls provides what we all want and desire for our community. We are also in the process of setting up an open forum to get more input and feedback from both our members and the public at large. We are hoping to hold that within the first week or so after the labor day weekend. Time and place TBD.
Suzanne Burrows August 10, 2012 at 09:14 PM
Two final comments. Concerning the point you raised about Garry Lion's signature on our April letter. I want it to be very clear that even though Garry is an ex-officio member of our board, he was not involved in crafting or endorsing the contents of that communication. Inclusion of his name as a signatory was in error. I also want to point out that you are incorrect in stating that the 1500 square foot "rule" was what triggered the need for the Subway CUP. This space is less than 1500 square feet. The CUP was trigger by other factors.
Thrasy Bulus August 10, 2012 at 09:55 PM
This is a very interesting thread and very revealing. Ms. Burrows seems to feel the need to disparage others in their good faith efforts to shed some light on what for many is an opaque process as well as on an organization in the Chamber of Commerce that seems opaque and unresponsive to community priorities. One is reminded of the old saying, "sunlight is the best disinfectant." What is clear from Ms. Burrows responses here is that, while the Chamber of Commerce allegedly represents a wide range of Mill Valley businesses, in reality what it represents is a consolidated block of Mill Valley commercial property owners. This group of people seems to think that bringing in large national formula retail is the way to drive up rents even higher--apparently Union Square San Francisco levels is not high enough. From their perspective I can full understand why attracting deep-pocketed corporations to town might seem like a way to maximize the value of their property holdings. But such a change in priority will forever change the unique character of Mill Valley that frankly is only clinging by a thread as it is. What makes Mill Valley unique is its great natural beauty and to a lesser but still significant extent the creativity and energy of the people who choose to live and do business here. Maximizing rents to a small group of commercial property owners is not a community priority. It is a very narrow priority for a small group, represented by the Chamber.
james thomas August 10, 2012 at 10:46 PM
I was at that meeting and encourage people to watch the chambers presentations. The meeting was supposed to be part of finalizing the changes of the now P-A district (professional administrative) to a zone called L-C (limited commercial) It has been an ongoing discussion that included members of neighborhoods who were at risk to the quality of their lives with some of the changes. The planning commission and planning department worked very hard to accommodate the various sides, that seemed for the most part, satisfactory. What we had at the meeting was a hijacking of the agenda by these chamber of commerce members. I gasped at the ridiculous and obvious agenda that was being promoted. They chose a time when few people would attend and watch their actions. I personally wouldn't have been there as I was ill, but after watching the live feed in disbelief, I rushed down. I felt, at the least, they were out of touch with community wishes. It felt very calculated and seemed to promote a corporate style business agenda. One member even tried to (laughably) tie the need for corporate $ from deep pocketed chains in the even of a disaster. We all know what a poor little city Mill Valley is, and we couldn't do it ourselves (LOL) I was floored! Another talked about South Beach Florida and a walgreens in a restored art deco building as a good thing (a model?) Ouch. None of them seemed to know the size of downtown properties (an odd thing) Watch the rebroadcast!
Liz Williamson August 10, 2012 at 11:26 PM
Suzanne, It is not right that the Board collectively take a position on zoning. The point of any Chamber is to promote buisness of any size; not to use it as a political platform for its Board Members. If you take any position, no matter which way, you are excluding a buisness by your position or offending one of its members. It is not right to have members pay money to join or have the city financially support The Chambers and then have The Board become lobbyist for re-zoning or whatever poltical agenda the Board supports. I am amazed that no one on The Board can see the conflict of interest here.
Bob Silvestri August 11, 2012 at 04:07 AM
In my quest to find out how many members the Mill Valley Chamber has I counted up all the listings of individuals, services, businesses, institutions, etc, that are located in the City of Mill Valley, in their web site "Directory" (there are lots of duplications under different titles). If that list is any indication of the size of their membership, then the total number of MV Chamber members would come to only about 100.
Thrasy Bulus August 11, 2012 at 09:30 PM
The web directory is not really indicative of their membership. It is just an advertising vehicle for the businesses listed there and a revenue source for the Chamber. Most of the members join as a networking thing. Then there are those who join in order to be able to advertise in the directory and build up a business. These activities are incidental to what is really happening with their agenda, which is very much about the interests of commercial property owners. None of this should surprise anyone. Just look at the political agenda of the national organization.
Garry Lion August 14, 2012 at 05:52 AM
Bob and Liz I want to emphasize the fact that I took no part in developing the Chamber's position on zoning in their April letter. I did not even see that letter until August 3rd, after which I immediately emailed the Chamber President, Vice President and Executive Director to tell them to NEVER use my name on any correspondence advocating a position on a City issue. I can not even discuss a potential City Council issue with interested parties, let alone advocate a position until hearing all the evidence in a public hearing. That would be a conflict of interest and/or Council policy, which I have never done. You should also be aware that as the City's liaison to the Chamber, I am only an ex-officio member of the Board who can not make motions or vote on any Chamber decision.
Liz Williamson August 15, 2012 at 09:53 PM
Thank you Gary for the clarification, To be frank, I am not fully aware of what you are and are not allowed to sign. I understand now. I still feel the Chamber's should not be voicing their view either way, which has nothing to do with you. When any Board takes a position on zoning they are speaking on behalf of its members and that is what I have an issue with.
Mitch Wortzman August 17, 2012 at 02:41 AM
Garry thank you for posting that. So not only does the Chamber letter not represent the business community - it doesn't even represent the signers! Thanks Bob for another great piece!
Citizen August 22, 2012 at 05:22 PM
Is "executive support" a major at the University of Virginia?

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