In the span of just a few weeks, the city of Mill Valley’s ongoing quest to – a process that dates back several years and has been plodding along at a snail’s pace with nary a dustup – has morphed into a full-scale conflagration, with accusations of misconduct, allegations of conflicts of interest and calls for an investigation.
The battle, which has its roots in the earlier this year, pits a number of local residents, many of whom are members of the Friends of Mill Valley, against the fledgling board of the over proposed changes to the city’s zoning ordinance. The rhetoric has reached a fever pitch in recent days with heated online exchanges as chamber critics have launched an aggressive online campaign to challenge the chamber board.
Chamber board member Clifford Waldeck said he wished the Friends of Mill Valley had reached out directly to chamber officials instead using email blasts to launch a campaign against the organization. If initial outreach was unsuccessful, Waldeck said, then escalating the matter would then have been more appropriate.
“It’s always challenging, especially when you’re in a volunteer community position, to interact with members of the community that have the appearance of shooting first and asking questions later,” Waldeck said. “I’m really baffled the vitriol laid toward the chamber right now.”
At the heart of it all is an April 16 letter (attached at right) from the chamber board to the Mill Valley Planning Commission. In it, the board states its opposition to some of the myriad proposed changes to the city’s commercial zoning ordinance. The commission has been considering those changes sporadically since June 2011 on the heels of recommendations from the now-defunct Business Advisory Board "to improve city processes and promote business development consistent with Mill Valley’s character."
The chamber board’s primary objections focus on a square footage trigger – the size of a commercial space that would require a business to go through to a public hearing and get a conditional use permit (CUP) – as well as language that would require any chain or formula business hoping to open downtown to do the same.
The April letter, and critics’ claims that the positions expressed in it don’t represent the views of chamber members, has commanded most of the attention in recent weeks. It was the subject of a , inciting a number of comments from chamber board members and critics alike. Some chamber critics have said its board shouldn’t be lobbying at City Hall at all.
“If you take any position, no matter which way, you are excluding a business by your position or offending one of its members,” wrote real estate agent Liz Williamson in a . “I am amazed that no one on the board can see the conflict of interest here.”
Mistake or Subterfuge?
In recent days, the focus has shifted to one of the names at the bottom of the April letter: Mayor Garry Lion. As an ex-oficio member of the chamber’s board, Lion is the city’s liaison to it and doesn’t get to vote on board decisions. But his inclusion on the list of board members at the bottom of the letter, a move which chamber leaders insist was a serious but completely honest mistake, incited Silvestri and six other residents to .
Chamber officials said the inclusion was an administrative blunder, nothing more. Lion has emphasized that he was not involved in the drafting of the letter and didn’t see it until Aug, 3, when much of the controversy surrounding it started as a number of residents began emailing it around.
“This has developed into a tempest in a teapot – much ado about nothing,” Lion said. “It doesn’t look like there was any inappropriate behavior at all - it was just an honest mistake and it’s completely getting blown out of proportion.”
City Manager Jim McCann said he looked into the allegation and found that “there was nothing improper or under-handed – that’s clear.” McCann said he plans to notify Silvestri of that decision in a letter.
Silvestri said he’s not convinced.
“You do not do things like that,” Silvestri said of the inclusion of Lion’s name at the bottom of the letter. “When you’re a grownup in business, you don’t lie, especially when it comes to the mayor’s name. It defies credulity.”
While the names at the bottom of the letter have drawn attention in recent days, its content is the crux of the battle. One side wants to tighten the current restrictions square-footage triggers and add a requirement that all formula businesses need a CUP, while the other wants to make sure the city is not overly restrictive and subjecting every new business application to what it deems a costly and time-consuming public hearing process.
Subway and “Formula” Businesses
Silvestri said there is “no middle ground” between the chamber board’s position and that of he and his supporters.
“The Planning Commission is correctly trying to put in additional wording that gives future Planning Commissions and City Councils the ability to deal with the Subways of the world,” he said. “All we’re taking about is a public process.”
The current proposed commercial zoning changes require all formula business, which the city defines as businesses with seven or more locations that are required to have standardized merchandise, décor, uniforms and signs, to go through a public hearing process and get a CUP.
Chamber critics have used Subway as a rallying cry of sorts for the need for formula language. But even though the 29 Miller Ave. space was smaller than the current 1,500-square foot trigger and was not a change of use, city officials said the deli chain would have been subject to a CUP process regardless because the previous tenant at 29 Miller Ave. (Baskin-Robbins) was there for more than 40 years and the city’s laws had changed so much since then.
The commission is also considering a shift in the city’s current square-footage trigger for a CUP. Current regulations state that any business with more than 1,500 square feet of “selling space” need to get a CUP. The commission is now including “gross floor area” within that 1,500-square-foot trigger to account for things like hallways, storage rooms and bathrooms. The shift is at least partially an effort to combat copycats of 2011 a move by the , which avoided needing a CUP by simply reducing its “selling space,” or public access area, to below 1,500 square feet.
Chamber officials have lobbied for a 4,000-square-foot total space trigger, saying existing law and the proposed changes to it would decrease downtown diversity and encourage property owners to chop up buildings into ever-smaller storefronts.
For some original members of the Business Task Force and the subsequent Business Advisory Board – the two committees that first proposed commercial zoning changes to add transparency and clarity to the process of trying to open a new business in town – the current state of affairs is pretty frustrating.
“Right now, this process begs more questions that it answers,” said Paula Reynolds, a member of both business groups and now a chamber board member. “They’ve taken some of what we recommended, such as creating distinct zones with distinct permitted uses. But we did not recommend a square footage limit and this issue of formula came out of nowhere - it simply never came up in countless meetings with dozens of people since 2008. They seem to have forgotten the part about making it more transparent and streamlined and clear.”
Chamber officials said they’re in the midst of gathering square-footage data from downtown storefronts to get a sense of how many existing storefronts would become non-compliant under the proposed changes. Existing businesses wouldn’t be impacted unless they moved and changed the existing use in their new space.
City officials said that it will likely be a while before any business zoning changes are set in stone because the proposed changes are being discussed in the midst of the update. Making sure the zoning changes reflect the over-arching goals of the new General Plan is vital, McCann said, and city officials and planning staff are involved in both efforts.
Because the proposed changes are unlikely to be enacted soon, city officials said easing the intensity of the rhetoric was wise. Lion said he believed that both the chamber and its critics have similar goals - to preserve Mill Valley’s “small town character” and help the local economy thrive – but that have different tactics.
“The chamber is trying to say, ‘Let’s be clearer as to what we want to allow and not allow up front, while the Friends are saying, ‘We can’t anticipate every scenario and we want to look at every business application on a case by case basis. It’s healthy to have that discussion.”
“Emotions are high right now,” Councilman Ken Wachtel said. “People are always very energetic in their defense of our town and in putting forward their views of what will make our town better. That’s a good thing. But courtesy would help.”