Islanders gag on fast food proposals

If a location scout for a fast-food chain dropped into Thursday’s workshop on possible changes to the city’s ordinance, the message would have come through unmistakably:

Go away.

Bainbridge Island, attendees said in numbers, wants to be different. It wants to promote local businesses, healthy food, and above all, wants to avoid being like everywhere else.

“They don’t care how good-looking the buildings are. They said the whole corporate culture of fast food is something we don’t want on the island,” said architect Charles Wenzlau.

Wenzlau and other members of a committee considering a different approach to the ordinance came to City Hall Thursday to discuss a concept that would sharply regulate the appearance of “formula” businesses, tighten design guidelines and create a design-review panel to review development plans early in the process.

For the dozens of people who attended, though, the only topic of interest was the idea that tighter design controls could “permit the availability of fast food and other commonly franchised businesses on Bainbridge Island,” according to the committee’s presentation.

That was the wrong question, some of the attendees argued.

“The issue is the destruction of local values and the loss of local control,” said David Korten, one of the speakers at Thursday’s meeting.

“We need to take a stand, and find openings to a playing field that tilts in favor of local businesses,” said Korten, author of a number of books arguing that the corporate form of organization is inherently problematic.

Mark Lacy, who submitted written comments, said that he would like limited fast food – in fact, he said, he wouldn’t mind opening a Subway sandwich shop himself – but recognizes that it is an all-or-nothing proposition.

“Once you let one in, you will have to let them all in,” Lacy said. “The city legally and ethically cannot play favorites. Once this starts, the character and culture of this island is changed permanently.”

The city’s present ordinance prohibits “formula take-out food” establishments in all areas except along High School Road east of the highway, where McDonald’s is located.

The ordinance defines “formula” establishments as those where menus, ingredients, uniforms or decor are established by contract.

The legality of the ordinance has never been tested in court. But when the owner of a Papa Murphy’s U-bake pizza franchise sued the city after being denied permission to open up shop in the Village, the city settled before trial for payments exceeding $100,000.

More recently, former planning director Stephanie Warren used the ordinance to keep Starbucks out of a kiosk it wanted to open inside of Safeway. But last summer, new planning director Larry Frazier ruled that the ordinance didn’t apply to a location inside an existing store, and Starbucks opened its Safeway outlet.

Councilman Norm Wooldridge, who chaired the design-guideline committee, said he was motivated by the legal questions, not by a desire for more formula establishments.

“I would like nothing better than to have the fast-food restaurants completely eliminated,” Wooldridge said, “but continuing to pay out money to settle lawsuits is not sustainable.”

Korten acknowledged that he is unaware of any community that has passed an anti-formula ordinance that has sustained legal challenge.

“Corporate interests over the years have made it impossible to favor local interests,” he said, including the commerce clause to the U.S. Constitution, which has been interpreted as forbidding local ordinances that burden interstate commerce.

“That was put in there at the insistence of corporate interests, and has created the economy that they want,” he said.

The plan now is to separate the two issues, Wooldridge said, going forward with the design guidelines and retaining the fast-food ordinance, at least for the present.

But, he said, the design guidelines may, by themselves, act as a considerable deterrent, by requiring that all fast-food businesses share a building with a non-formula business, for example.

“The fast-food restaurants want free-standing buildings with a particular look,” he said. “If we tell them they can’t have that, will they come anyway? A couple might, but I don’t think it will be many.”

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