Despite 24 public speakers, rare joint meeting ends with little consensus
By Nao Braverman
In a grueling four-and-a-half-hour roundtable discussion on how to protect Ojai from the proliferation of chain stores Wednesday night, Planning Commissioners and members of the City Council were sure about one thing, they did not want to restrict any service providers in Ojai, chain or not.
Though mixed in their opinions on whether to adopt a restrictive ordinance or just enhance the city’s planning codes, the governing bodies were both concerned about discouraging businesses that serve Ojai residents, namely banks, insurance companies and loan providers.
Despite the city attorney’s trepidation over the legal defensibility of restricting some chains while allowing others, most planning commissioners and council members said it was worth the risk, as services are a necessity for community residents.
The 11 constituents who participated in the joint meeting, however, were divided on whether they would like to ban chain restaurants or fast-food joints. Six said they were in favor of banning restaurant chains while five were not, and seven said they were in favor of banning fast-food outlets while four were not.
Mayor Carol Smith said she would support a ban of restaurant and clothing chains but Planning Commissioners Susan Weaver and John Mirk and Councilwoman Sue Horgan expressed interest in re-evaluating and strengthening current planning codes without imposing any restrictions at all.
Most of the constituents were interested in the idea of subjecting all incoming chains, except for services, to individual design review and public input. That way each chain could be evaluated on a case-by-case basis so as not to restrict chains that could benefit the community.
However, some public speakers and constituents agreed that solely a design review for incoming businesses would be insufficient.
“It’s not about appearance, it’s about quality,” said Ojai resident Dennis Leary.
Councilwoman Rae Hanstad agreed.
“What I am getting is that if it were a really good-looking McDonald’s, it would be OK. I don’t support that notion,” she said.
Hanstad and Planning Chair Tucker Adams were in favor of finding some way to protect the Arcade from chains.
The majority of public speakers, 16 of the 24 total, were in favor of imposing some kind of restriction, several were on the fence saying they didn’t want Ojai taken over by chains but were afraid of harming local commerce, and a few were completely opposed to imposing any restrictions at all.
In contrast to prior meetings, several proponents for a restriction against chains at Wednesday night’s meeting were prominent local business owners.
“I fear you are ignoring the convictions of many while listening to the wishes of a few,” said Hallie Katz, owner of the Human Arts Gallery, and Human Arts Home in the Arcade. “If mom-and-pop stores go the way of the dinosaur, and our Ojai Avenue becomes more and more like Ventura Boulevard in San Fernando Valley, tourists won’t want to come here … I implore you to keep the Arcade intact. I would love to see chains banned from the entire city but I understand that may be impractical.”
A consensus among five council members, six planning commissioners, two attorneys and 24 opinionated public speakers is a nearly impossible feat, especially when it comes to the topic of chain stores in Ojai.
But city staff walked away with some input to draft their next ordinance. City manager Jere Kersnar said the upcoming draft would be presented to the Planning Commission upon completion, though currently no date is set for when it will be completed.