Is fast-food law a matter of taste?

While the formula fast-food ordinance may have helped keep Bainbridge Island from looking like “Anyplace USA,” it may not be legal, and it may not be broad enough, says City Councilman Norm Wooldridge.

Instead, Wooldridge says, the city should look at design guidelines that will protect Bainbridge’s appearance without discriminating against non-local businesses.

“Is it the franchises we’re concerned about or the look?” Wooldridge asked. “I think it’s the look. And while we’d like to protect the little local businesses – I’d like to – we can’t. It’s illegal.”

The statements came at the opening meeting of a nine-member citizen advisory group, chaired by Wooldridge, whose task is to develop design guidelines that will prevent the “plastic, anyplace look” that comes with a proliferation of national-brand signs and facades.

The fast-food ordinance, passed by the city of Winslow after McDonalds opened on High School Road east of the highway, applies to businesses whose menus, ingredients or design are established by contract, and which sell or deliver food in disposable containers.

Such businesses are permitted only on the east side of the highway, and only in buildings with at least one other business, rather than in free-standing situations.

The legality of the ordinance has been called into question, most recently when a Sequim businessman was prohibited from opening a Papa Murphy’s U-bake store in the Village shopping center.

In a lawsuit against the city, he argued that because a locally-owned non-franchise operation would be permitted to operate the same business he was planning – an assertion the city conceded – the ordinance did not really deal with land use, but was an attempt to hobble non-local businesses.

The city settled before that case went to judgment.

“We essentially bought off Papa Murphy’s,” Wooldridge said, “but our ordinance is vulnerable to challenge.”

If appearance is the issue, committee member Eric Schmidt, a city planner whose consulting firm did the downtown Winslow design guidelines, suggested that regulating signs would address most of the concerns.

“The sign is the thing that hangs out and hits you in the face,” he said.

While the committee agreed that a sea of corporate logos was unacceptable, members were equally uncomfortable with the notion of a “theme.”

“We don’t want to create a storybook village,” said architect Charles Wenzlau.

While the group did not come to consensus about who should impose the design requirements – the planning staff, planning commission or a separate body – they agreed that it needed to be done early in the application process.

“It needs to happen before you are so far down the road that you have spent a lot of money,” said downtown developer Rod McKenzie.

The committee, made up of Schmidt, Wenzlau, McKenzie, Planning Commission members Bill Luria and Julie Kriegh, architect Tom Kuniholm, artist Gayle Bard, and businesswoman Mary Hall, will meet at 4 p.m. on alternate Thursdays at City Hall. Former planning director Stephanie Warren provides staff support.

Wooldridge said that whatever rules are developed will apply to all businesses, not just to “outsiders.”

“We have to treat everyone the same,” he said. “We can’t have a review process for franchises but not subject home-grown businesses to it.”

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