Supervisor Proposes Special Interest Exemption to Formula Retail Law

by Dean Preston on October 11, 2006

Supervisor Sean Elsbernd has proposed legislation that would exclude grocery stores from City’s definition of “formula retail.” The proposal would do nothing to address Elsbernd’s stated concern – the closure of grocery stores in SF. Instead, the proposal would simply free new chain supermarkets from conditional use (CU) scrutiny that applies to other businesses.

The law’s effect would be to shut neighbors out of the process if a new chain grocery store sought to open in their neighborhood. It would also open the door to other businesses to seek their own special interest exemptions to ‘formula retail’ controls.

Supervisor Elsbernd says this legislation is needed because the conditional use process can add 3-4 months to the process of opening a supermarket. But a supermarket with community support is likely to sail through the conditional use process. A three-month permit delay certainly would not deter a huge chain store like Safeway from opening in a neighborhood where it had support.

More likely, Elsbernd’s law would be used by chain stores to open in neighborhoods where there was significant opposition. The law simply puts a muzzle on neighbors in that situation, by precluding neighbors from having their say at a conditional use hearing.

This special interest legislation would set a dangerous precedent. By exempting one chain store sector from requirements that apply to other chain stores, the City would be inviting other powerful industries to obtain similar exemptions, effectively gutting San Francisco’s groundbreaking formula retail legislation.

The Small Business Commission’s recent action on this proposed legislation is particularly troubling. Last week, the Commission voted unanimously to support Elsbernd’s proposal. Not one of the Commissioners spoke against exempting chain supermarkets from a law designed to protect small businesses and neighborhood character. The Commission should be taking the lead in protecting small businesses by supporting efforts to strengthen, not undermine, formula retail restrictions.

Reasonable people can disagree about the desirability of chain stores, but residents should have a forum to be heard when chain stores seek to move into their neighborhoods. Prop. G, on November’s ballot, furthers this goal by requiring a conditional use hearing for new chain stores in all neighborhood commercial districts, not just the handful that have such protection now.

In contrast, Elsbernd’s proposal seeks to silence neighbors when supermarkets are at issue. There is no reason for such legislation, and the Board should reject it.

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