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Is your store welcome in downtown Petaluma?

Published: Thursday, December 13, 2012 at 11:11 a.m.
Last Modified: Thursday, December 13, 2012 at 11:11 a.m.

When Milo Rorshack walks the streets of downtown Petaluma during his lunch break, he draws stares. With his shaved head, tattoos covering most of his face and neck, and large earlobe-stretching plugs, Rorshack does stand out in a crowd.

But this Petaluma Eye Spy Tattoo artist says he is just like everyone else. “I have a family, I shop locally and try to help the economy, and I speak at high school career days,” he said.

So when he and other local tattoo artists heard about a new law going before the Planning Commission aimed at limiting the number of certain types of businesses downtown, including tattoo shops, Rorshack was appalled.

“It's like the city is saying we aren't what they want down here,” Rorshack said, shaking his head. “Is that what we want to tell kids today? That artists aren't allowed downtown?”

The city ordinance that came before the Planning Commission Tuesday night seeks to ban “restricted personal service” businesses, which the city defines as establishments that could have a “potentially offensive, blighting and/or deteriorating effect upon surrounding areas and which may need to be dispersed to minimize their adverse effects.” Such businesses include tattoo shops, unlicensed massage parlors, soup kitchens, fortune tellers, psychics, palm readers, hourly rental hot tub spas and bail bond issuers. Current businesses of this sort already located downtown would be grandfathered in and allowed to stay, as long as they did not move or expand.

The proposed ordinance stems from a Petaluma Downtown Association letter sent to the council in February expressing concern over the proliferation of these kinds of businesses downtown and from a City Council 2012 goal to revise zoning for these businesses in the downtown area.

Marie McCusker, executive director of the Petaluma Downtown Association, said it is important to revise current zoning regulations to preserve the overall image of downtown and address the proliferation of businesses with potentially negative impacts on neighboring businesses. She added that the association is aware that the term “negative” is open to interpretation.

Downtown Association President Jeff Mayne added that the proposed ordinance was not an attack on existing downtown businesses. “Every shopping district tries to create an overall atmosphere and this town doesn't have any guidelines for that,” he said. “This is a preliminary look at creating those guidelines. We're not trying to threaten existing businesses.”

But the proposed changes met with concern from some planning commissioners and community members at Tuesday's meeting, with some questioning why certain businesses should be banned from downtown and not others.

James Bruce, who co-owns the Aces Over Eights tattoo shop in American Alley, pointed out that more than 80 percent of the customers who frequent his shop are from out of town and bring much-needed revenue to Petaluma.

“About 120 customers a week come to my shop, go to other local businesses, shop in town, eat in town and they do it without causing harm to the area,” Bruce said. “While I am glad that this ordinance would get rid of any new competition for me, I don't see the shops we have lasting forever.”

Some planning commissioners echoed Bruce's sentiments. Commissioner Dennis Elias, who also referred to tattoos as “art,” said that free market competition would naturally inhibit the over-saturation of these businesses in the downtown area and questioned the “true intent” of the proposed ordinance.

“These businesses have a place in the community and I find it disturbing that we're trying to tell the community they have to go out of the area to access them,” Elias said. “We don't need to go down this slope.”

Tattoo shops, in particular, were a controversial addition to the restricted personal services business list. For many, gone are the days of drunken sailors stumbling into seedy shops to get inked after hours. These days, Bruce contended at the meeting, “Everyone has tattoos.” To prove the point, Gabe Kearney, who is City Council liaison to the commission, admitted that he had several tattoos himself.

City Planner Scott Duiven added that the Petaluma Police Department has not received any complaints regarding the current businesses in the downtown district, other than from the known prostitution operations run from illicit massage parlors in the area, which the city is targeting through another ordinance brought before the council on Dec. 3.

Bruce and several commissioners pointed out that the ordinance could have the effect of making the current shops' locations highly lucrative by prohibiting new competition from moving in, creating a monopoly of sorts for these current owners. While this appeals to some businesses, it doesn't please all of them.

Alan Hyman, who has owned The Pawn Shop Advantage Store on Petaluma Boulevard North for 19 years, said that having empty storefronts does not help drive business to the area. “Competition is a good thing for people and we welcome it,” Hyman said. “The city needs income and they're going to shoot themselves in the foot by shooing away businesses.”

Commissioner Ray Johnson, who is currently battling cancer and recently visited a massage therapist and a head shop for treatment, also found the language of the ordinance antiquated. He expressed concern that the changes would ultimately lead to the extinction of such businesses downtown.

“Right now, the ordinance is a hodgepodge of unclear definitions that doesn't explain what we're trying to accomplish here,” Johnson said.

The Planning Commission eventually voted to table the issue until the City Council could provide more clarity over the massage parlor ordinance and what sort of businesses are desired downtown. That likely won't take place until after February of 2013, Kearney estimated.

(Contact Janelle Wetzstein at janelle.wetzstein@arguscourier.com)

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