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City Hall Continues Hunt for Consensus on Depot Plaza Use Rules

City officials say they need more information to continued with planned expansion of the use of downtown square.

Nearly three years after the city's Business Advisory Board included allowing more events on the Depot Plaza among its recommendations to encourage residents to shop locally, City Hall is still trying to identify a consensus on the rules to govern such an expansion.

City officials have sought to identify a proposal to expand the use of Depot Plaza, which was turned into a public gathering space in 1982 after years as a bus station and parking lot, without inciting noise complaints from residents who live near downtown and in the canyons above it. The proposal, which made its latest stop in front of the Parks and Recreation Commission earlier this month, comes with a twist: City Hall has largely been ignoring its existing rules in approving many popular downtown events.

“We are currently in violation of our own city laws,” Recreation Director Jenny Rogers, the latest person tapped to compose an ordinance (staff report attached at right) that will garner broad support, told the commission.

Under the current ordinance, many of the most popular Depot Plaza events in recent years wouldn't be allowed. The current regulations include:

  • Events may have no more than 50 participants
  • Six amplified music events per year
  • Event times restricted to 12 p.m. — 4 p.m.

The commission's Feb. 6 meeting was the first time city officials held a public meeting on Depot Plaza use in more than a year, when the City Council determined that a proposal to eliminate or raise the limits on plaza use lacked meat.

At the time, the council directed city staff at that time to comb through event applications from the past two years and develop criteria based on the successful (Art Commission events like Paint Off and Comedy Night) and unsuccessful (proposals for farmers markets) Depot Plaza event applications in recent years.

There are a number of recurring events on the plaza each year, including popular events like the Wine and Gourmet Food Tasting, which is by far the most heavily attended plaza event of the year, annually serving as the biggest fundraiser for the Chamber of Commerce. In addition, the annual Winterfest event, which morphed into a two-day affair in December 2011 and proved a successful, incident-free affair, has been one of the largest plaza events.

The commission hasn’t exactly abided by the rules governing those events. For example, while there can be no more than six events featuring amplified music per year, here are the approved events from the past four years:

  • 2012: 14 approved events, 9 with amplified music/sound
  • 2011: 11 approved events, 8 with amplified music/sound
  • 2010: 14 approved events, 9 with amplified music/sound
  • 2009: 11 approved events, 7 with amplified music/sound

The most glaring restriction is a limit of 50 participants in a plaza event, despite the fact that the wine and gourmet food event and Winterfest have each drawn hundreds in recent years.

Rogers crafted an ordinance that would:

  • Eliminate the attendance cap of 50 people per event
  • Increase the cap on live amplified events with amplified restrictions placed in the rules and regulations policy to 10-12
  • Change the time constraints on allowable amplified events from 12 p.m. to 4 p.m. to 11 a.m. to 8 p.m.

Rogers sought to tamp down any community concerns that a revision to the ordinance was an attempt to turn the Depot Plaza into more of an entertainment venue.

“It’s not as if suddenly the plaza is going to become the Sweetwater on the plaza,” she said. “My goal is to get us into compliance with what we are currently doing. I don’t have an agenda to make it a thoroughfare on the plaza."

Longtime Mill Valley resident Dart Cherk and his wife Esther both lobbied to retain public access to the plaza at all times, regardless of the event occurring there. Some have complained that events involving alcohol, like the popular Gourmet Food & Wine Tasting in June, uses an orange fence to block those without tickets from walking through the plaza.

“It’s also ugly and unsafe,” Cherk said.

Blithedale Canyon resident Barbara Pletcher said she hears every amplified music event from her home and wants the city to pass an ordinance that puts a cap on the number of amplified music events that don’t “go past 8 p.m. – for old people and babies.”

Piazza D’Angelo co-owner and Mill Valley Chamber of Commerce board member Paolo Petrone encouraged the commission to allow more events on the plaza, though not necessarily those with amplified music.

“Mill Valley is what it is because of that square and I think we should utilize it more,” said Petrone, who conceived of the annual Winterfest celebration. 

Mill Valley Market co-owner Doug Canepa, whose family has organized the Wine Gourmet Food tasting event since its inception 32 years ago, told the commission that the event began upon the creation of the plaza in 1981.

“It’s a celebration of the plaza,” he said, requesting that the commission limit the number of large events, not just those with amplified music.

The commission discussed a number of other events specifically, including the Mill Valley Film Festival’s opening night party, which has been held downtown in 2007 and 2012 to mark anniversaries. That event is mostly enclosed in a tent, thereby lessening the sonic impact on surrounding neighborhoods.

But as has come up often during the process, commissioners sought additional information before moving forward with an ordinance. They said there was too much redundancy between the oprdinance and the rules and regulations that drew from it.

Commissioner Ricardo Capretta suggested the commission seek better guidance from the City Council before going forward.

“What is the vision of the city?” he asked. “We really need to know that right now. So the first thing is to get some feedback for the council. It’s a pretty critical issue.”

The commission asked Rogers to produce a spreadsheet on all of the events that occurred on the plaza over the past several years, as well as info on the major downtown events that don’t occur on the plaza itself, such as the Community Block Party in September.

Once the commission agrees on an ordinance, Rogers will send a report to City Manager Jim McCann and then present it to the City Council.

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Rebecca Chapman February 19, 2013 at 11:37 PM
what about having a 'residential advisory committee'? but, unlike the 'business advisory committee', whose motives seem questionable at best, the resdents chosen could have actual qualifications for the job at hand, like concerns for the general welfare of our local (& global) population[s], the natural environment & other cool stuff like that, as opposed to money, image & all that really yucky stuff??!

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