Calls from businesses and residents to abandon commercial zoning amendments came at a Gearhart Planning Commission public hearing last Thursday.

They say restrictive zoning is “strangling” existing businesses, particularly at a time when they are limited by coronavirus restrictions.

As the commission considered updates to the code before sending it to the City Council for action, hearing participants said the changes were vague, overly restrictive, poorly timed and presented without adequate public input.

“When the entire country and world are in the midst of a pandemic and an ever-changing business landscape,” wrote Ocean Avenue resident Jamie Gaylord wrote in a letter to planners, “why do you feel it is necessary to impose restrictions on them before we even know what the reality will be for them in the near future?”

Business owner Joy Sigler asked the city to abandon the downtown commercial zone altogether and begin a new one.

“The language and direction of the changes do not favor the promotion and support of entrepreneurs who would risk investing in this small community,” Sigler said.

Patricia Roberts was among the almost two dozen to write letters to the commission or speak at the meeting. “Are any of you small business owners?” Roberts asked planning commissioners. “Do any of you have a small business in the C-1 zone? Have you asked what the impact would be if you pass these regulations? ... Please pause this — this would be a disaster.”

Proposed changes

The goal of the amendments, City Planner Carole Connell said, are to modernize some of the uses in the downtown to allow current and future businesses more options to increase revenue, be more vibrant and remove some of the more restrictive language.

According to city code, the purpose of the neighborhood commercial, or C-1 zone, is to provide for the location of needed small businesses and services in the city center for the convenience of nearby residents. The zone includes 13 stores on 2 acres.

The code, based on the city’s comprehensive plan, reflects “your vision and your values,” City Attorney Peter Watts said.

“I have never seen a more restrictive zoning than Gearhart’s C-1 zoning,” he said. “But there are changes that can be made to it.”

The amended code expands descriptions for cafes, galleries and salons, and allows more options for variety stores, and increases residential options downtown, Connell said.

Language prohibits formula use businesses in the downtown commercial zone, defined as any restaurant, bar, entertainment and retail store that has four or more establishments in operation.

Other prohibited uses include adult shops, amusement parks, rentals and parking lots.

Restrictions ‘onerous’

Restrictive zoning hurts businesses, Sweet Shop owner Traci Williams said, and changes, while undertaken with the best intentions by the Planning Commission, missed the mark.

She said business owners weren’t given enough opportunities for input, and the changes and new definitions are arbitrary and vague. “These new conditional use definitions do nothing to encourage anything new,” Williams said.

She asked that coffee shop, cafe and retail be labeled outright uses that let the market determine what succeeds.

Stuart Emmons, a Clatsop County-based architect and planner, said in correspondence the amendments that the city has proposed for the C-1 zone will reduce or eliminate retail and services that provide for the needs of the residents.

The proposed amendment changes are overly “prescriptive” and “anti-business,” he said.

“The amendments that the city has proposed for the C-1 zone will reduce or eliminate retail and services that provide for the needs of the residents,” Emmons wrote. “Go to the businesses, ask them what they need, and let’s keep our businesses in business and encourage other people to open businesses.”

Kevin Leahy, executive director of Clatsop Economic Development Resources, a business advisory group, advised the city to be flexible in working with businesses.

Gearhart property owner Jeff TerHar said he was concerned about the amendments.

“I’m just asking that we reverted back to the Planning Commission input and reach out to us, the business people, and owners so we don’t get hurt by this. I would ask that you table this or settle, set it aside for work or study.”

Virginia Dideum, chairwoman of the Planning Commission, said the changes were based on the city’s comprehensive plan, written in 1990. “If you want to change it, it’s not for us to go change,” she said.

Commissioner David Smith said the success of local businesses or lack of it, was dependent on the business owners themselves, not the city. “That’s not our business. We’re a government,” he said.

Commissioner Terry Graff said the commission worked more than a year on the changes for “hours and hours and hours.”

“We thought we were doing the right thing for the business community when we went through this, expanding a lot of things, making sure it met the comprehensive plan,” Graff said. “This is what I would like from the businesses. You’re here day-in, day-out. Come up with a two-page report saying, ‘This is what you guys can do.’ Tell me how you can help us solve those problems.”

Business owners plan to take the commissioners up on their offer.

“I am working with other business owners to provide two pages of feedback, per the commissions request,” Williams said. “I hope they will incorporate our suggestions because we are very invested in maintaining a viable C-1 district. And in fact, the city’s comprehensive plan requires this, so the commission shouldn’t do anything to create more barriers, especially in these uncertain times.”

The hearing on commercial zone amendments continues at the Planning Commission’s Nov. 12 meeting.

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