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Hairbrained schemes

Evanston's plan to target hair salons on Howard Street is the latest example of a troubling trend of ill-conceived restrictions on business dreamed up by our local government.

The justifications offered for the regulations at last week's Plan Commission meeting were as thin and unconvincing as a comb over.

The city staff offered no solid evidence for its imagined "negative cumulative effect" of the clustering of personal care businesses on Howard.

There were vague allusions to potential new businesses not wanting to locate near ones that "they don't think are compatible with their enterprise." What's that supposed to mean exactly? In this case, true or not, a lot of Evanstonians might read it as code for "I don't want to locate near minority-owned businesses that attract minority customers."

Alderman Ann Rainey, 8th Ward, was the instigator behind the proposal to require special use permits for anyone wishing to operate a hair or nail salon east of Ridge on Howard — although she now insists she wasn't behind the part of the staff plan that would have required existing salons to close if they didn't get a special use permit within two years.

Rainey has worked hard to revive the Howard Street business district. But her tactics are sometimes heavy-handed and counter-productive.

And the fact that staff failed to consult with or even notify any of the 11 businesses that would be affected by the proposed regulations speaks volumes about the often high-handed ways of govenment bureaucracies.

The Plan Commission sent the hair salon plan back to staff for revision — but it likely is not dead yet.

A similar travesty occurred earlier this year when staff — responding to two prostitution-related busts at different massage parlors over the span of a year — proposed imposing special use permit restrictions on massage therapists in Evanston.

That ordinance raised the "negative cumulative impact" flag as well, and proposed that massage businesses be forced to locate at least 1,000 feet apart.

That idea was beaten back after dozens of massage therapists and practitioners of other alternative health therapies that would have been caught up by the regulations turned out to protest that they ran entirely legitimate businesses and were being unfairly targeted by the city's crackdown.

They also noted that many of them were clustered near each other and no problems had resulted.

The special use process generally delays approval of a business licensing application by at least three months and gives the City Council effectively unlimited discretion over approving a license. The delays are costly and the uncertainty adds more risk to what is already a risky business startup process.

Such restrictions may sometimes be appropriate. But they should only be imposed when there is compelling evidence that they are needed.

The half-baked plans seen recently should be an embarrassment to anyone who believes that government should be fair and reasonable in its dealings with citizens.

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