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Hottie in Cotati

Measure P pits friends and foes of big-box retail development

By Joy Lanzendorfer

This November, Cotati voters will have the final say on whether they want big-scale commercial development. No, really this time.

But while the passage or rejection of Measure P will likely be the final word on whether Lowe's or other big-box retailers will build on the city's largest plot of undeveloped land, there's more at stake here than just shopping. Measure P will determine the future of Cotati's development. Will this little hamlet become an extension of its neighbor, Rohnert Park, with its big-box stores and proposed "monster" casino complex? Will it become home to upscale blonde stucco storefronts with tasteful tile roofs, like Windsor and Healdsburg? Or, like Sebastopol, will Cotati cling to its autonomous past despite pressure from big business and upscale interests?

With choices like these, it's no wonder the town is divided. In fact, this is the third time in seven years that Cotati will vote on the size of its retail development. The first time, in 1997, voters banned large retailers throughout Cotati. In 2003, voters exempted parts of the town from those same size restrictions. In both cases, the victory was narrow; in 2003, the measure passed by only 34 votes.

The current initiative, Measure P, or the Cotati Sensible Development Initiative, would apply to the 52-acre lot northwest of highways 116 and 101. In the last few years, plans for this piece of land have morphed from the originally proposed business park with a large telecommunications campus to a mixed-use lot with housing and shopping anchored by a proposed Lowe's Home Improvement. At 165,000 square feet, roughly the size of three football fields, Lowe's would be Sonoma County's largest hardware store.

Measure P seeks to restrict retail buildings on the lot to 60,000 square feet, the size of one football field. In place of a giant retail store, the measure proposes a retail village, or a group of smaller retail stores broken up with parking lots.

Proponents say Measure P attempts to balance business needs with traffic concerns and quality of life.

"It's a sensitive issue in California," says Neil Hancock of the Coalition to Protect Cotati's Future, which created Measure P. "How do you create a community where the quality of life is enhanced while still supporting a diversified business structure? What supports local businesses but doesn't cause community dislocation? It isn't a strictly solvable problem, but Measure P attempts to shape it."

The measure also bans grocery stores over 43,000 square feet, but makes an exemption for a hotel over 60,000 square feet. Hotels, proponents believe, create less traffic problems than other types of businesses.

If the Lowe's goes in, it would be the fourth major hardware store within 15 square miles, competing with Yardbirds, Home Depot and Friedman Brothers. Opponents of Measure P point out that Yardbirds funded parts of the measure, as well as opposition against the 2003 initiative.

The Petaluma-based store spent nearly $60,000 from July to September supporting Measure P, according to campaign finance reports released earlier this month, and almost $350,000 to fight the 2003 initiative. On the other hand, Lowe's and developer Newman Development Group spent $75,000 through September to stop Measure P and $200,000 in support of the 2003 initiative.

The Coalition to Protect Cotati's Future admits that they have partnered with Yardbirds as well as other groups, like the Sierra Club. They also say Measure P isn't directed against Lowe's specifically, but at the size of the store.

"It's not about Lowe's," says Hancock. "It's about the question, do you want to be able to build anything of any size on any property? If Measure P passes, Lowe's could still go into the lot, as long as it meets the new criteria."

Along with Measure P, three new seats will open up on the Cotati City Council in November. The new members will have a lasting impact on Cotati future growth.

One supporter of Measure P is candidate Tanya Boone-Alva, who favors slow but appropriate growth for Cotati. Like many people, she wonders what will happen if Lowe's goes out of business.

"My concern is that if we give Lowe's carte blanche to build here and it fails, we will have a huge blight of a big-box store that will be a hassle to try to fill," she says. "It's a huge risk."

Others feel that keeping Lowe's out is a financial mistake. If the store is successful, it will bring an estimated $730,000 in annual sales tax revenue to Cotati.

Proponents of Measure P say the retail village could bring in that much revenue, but others aren't so sure. For one thing, the retail village could compete with Cotati's downtown. For another, small businesses have a slimmer chance of success.

"Small businesses have an 80 percent failure rate," says Cotati City Council candidate Andrew Hutchins. "While Lowe's could fail, it would be more stable than small businesses. And an entity like Lowe's is going to do its homework before it buys a piece of land."

Other candidates oppose Measure P for reasons other than economics. Eric Kirchmann is on the fence about Measure P because, while he has nothing against Lowe's, he believes too many planning decisions are being made behind closed doors, limiting public debate.

Another of the eight candidates, Geoff Fox, opposes Measure P because he doesn't think that planning issues should be on the ballot. He feels it infringes on landowners' property rights.

"My overall goal would be to try to eliminate the ability for groups with agendas to put an initiative like this on the ballot," he says. "I have an aversion to it."

Fox favors upscale infill projects such as the Town Green in Windsor and Graton's city center.

All of the candidates in Cotati are wary of the situation in Rohnert Park. In the last few years, the Rohnert Park City Council increased commercial development to help solve its budget problems. Many Cotati candidates feel their neighbor's approach to development is a mistake.

"Rohnert Park is in trouble," says Boone-Alva. "That tells you something about their approach to development. Putting in big-box buildings isn't an answer to a budget problem. It's short-term thinking."

Rohnert Park's new strip malls and chain stores, along with the proposed casino complex, will increase Cotati's traffic problems and put demands on water and housing. As the town reacts to those changes, quality of life becomes an issue. And while Cotati can do nothing about its neighbor, it can at least make one decision about its future.

"The issue is, do residents want to keep the sort of quality of charm that Cotati is known for, or do they want to go to the big-box model like Rohnert Park has and deal with the kind of issues that Rohnert Park does?" says Hancock. "That is the issue before voters here."

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From the October 20-26, 2004 issue of the North Bay Bohemian.

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