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Chamber Pushes Back on City’s Proposed Biz Zoning Changes

Officials say proposals to trigger a public hearing process based on the size of a retail shop and whether or not it’s part of a chain could inhibit economic vitality by discouraging so-called “anchor” tenants.

In making their case to prospective members, the leaders of the have identified advocacy – lobbying at City Hall on behalf of local business interests – as one of the pillars of their .

Chamber officials did just that late last month, telling the Mill Valley Planning Commission that its appears to be based on fear and doesn’t promote a long-term vision of local economic vitality.

“How do we zone proactively for what we want and not reactively to what we fear?” chamber board member Paula Reynolds asked the commission at its July 23 meeting at . “These proposed changes are fear based. They are less transparent to property owners and they fiercely embrace the status quo … You’re playing god and you’re creating an amazing amount of uncertainty for business owners, and uncertainty is about the worst thing that a biz owner can deal with.”

The commission hadn’t discussed the proposed changes, which are part of ongoing process that began in June 2011 on the heels of recommendations from the now-defunct Business Advisory Board, since February.

The proposals (attached at right) cover quite a bit of ground, spanning across all of the city's commercial areas. They include the creation of a new downtown-specific commercial district, as well as replacing the existing Professional and Administrative area, which includes parts of East Blithedale Ave., Camino Alto and Miller Ave., with a “Limited Commercial” area that would emphasize office uses but also reflects the fact that many other types of businesses, particularly hair and nail salons, have popped up in those areas in recent years.

But although the proposed changes are wide-ranging, those focusing on the regulation of downtown businesses have gotten the most buzz, particularly in the wake of the to the downtown earlier this year.

The latest iteration of the proposed changes focusing on downtown are two-fold:

  1. Changing the trigger for a conditional use permit (CUP) for a retail shop from 1,500 square feet of “selling space” to 1,500 square feet of total space, meaning that shops with small sales areas but larger storage areas or basements would be subject to a public hearing process.
  2. Requiring a public hearing process for all applications from chain retail shops, which the city defines as any entity with 7 or more locations and standardization on things like branding and uniforms.

There are other downtown-centric changes, including a requirement that any downtown restaurant obtain a CUP, but the aforementioned pair garnered the most attention at the commission’s July 23 meeting.

The net result of the first proposal, according to a number of chamber officials who spoke, was an incentive for property owners to sub-divide into smaller and smaller storefronts to avoid a potentially expensive and time-consuming public hearing process for a new tenant.

Ann Aversa, who sits on the chamber board but also was a member of the BAB whose recommendation spawned the commercial zoning overhaul, said it was the chamber’s understanding that the shift from counting total floor area instead of selling space would also mean that the CUP trigger would rise from 1,500 square feet to 4,000 square feet.

“That number would enable most of our existing retail stores to avoid being noncompliant with the new ordinance,” she told the commission.

There was some debate about how many existing stores would become non-compliant under the proposed rules. Commissioner Steve Geiszler said he couldn’t think of any store aside from , and that would be non-compliant.

“If we went with chamber’s suggestion, than everything would be permitted,” he said.

Commission Chair David Rand wondered why the chamber seemed to think that having property owners subdivide their spaces was a bad thing.

“The feeling is that you need anchor tenants in any community to be really vital,” Reynolds replied. “How would we feel about not having a big grocery store or not having certain banks available to us downtown? These are core large uses. It is a tenet of modern commerce.”

Chamber board member Ken Brooks added that he noticed more turnover in recent years among spaces that had been subdivided among multiple tenants. He said smaller spaces “drive lower rents, which tends to attract under-financed entrepreneurs with a misguided vision. Shifting that way may create a less stable retail environment.”

Chamber board members emphasized the need to connect the commission’s process with the larger and ongoing MV2040 General Plan update. The effort has a working group focused squarely on community vitality, which includes economic vitality.

“There are communities in Marin that have gotten to be collections of random very small places that don’t have that sense of vitality that Mill Valley does,” Reynolds said. “I just don’t want us to try and regulate that the status quo is the best or that everyone has to come to you and be subjected to what is a very qualitative process that is very unpredictable – the effect of what you’re doing does not get us there at this point.”

The commission agreed to revisit the issue in September. Whenever the commission does approve a set of commercial zoning changes, those changes would go to the City Council, which would determine how to proceed and integrate the changes into the General Plan update.

Anne Tique August 08, 2012 at 10:43 PM
Thank you, Paula Reynolds! As usual, your insights are valuable and experience-based. I appreciate your leadership.
Thrasy Bulus August 09, 2012 at 09:17 PM
Mill Valley does not need "anchor tenants". We are not a mall. This is just a red herring by the Chamber.
Susan Cluff August 10, 2012 at 03:06 AM
Advocacy for whom? if there are to be major changes to zoning and commercial regulations here, the City needs to hear from everyone and carefuly consider all potential isues and effects of any proposed changes. While the time may be here to take a look at these along with the general plan, and to refocus, research and rework the Chamber's role going forward (who represent only a small percentage of local businesses) this seems to call out for lots more research, stats, input and discussion.
RD August 10, 2012 at 05:35 AM
This is silly. Why is the Chamber afraid of public hearings?
Bob Silvestri August 10, 2012 at 05:09 PM
Has the Mill Valley Chamber of Commerce Board of Directors Lost Touch with the Community? http://millvalley.patch.com/blog_posts/has-the-mill-valley-chamber-of-commerce-lost-touch-with-the-community

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