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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Bill Smith is the editor and publisher of Evanston Now.

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3 Comments

  1. Hairbrained

    Politicians and bureaucrats make statements to justify their desires of the day.  They make statments and try to build cases that are very often contradictory from one situation to the next. Take the "negative cumulative impact" comments.  One day they don't like similar business consolidating close to one another, next day that is their exact stated desired goal. 

    For downtown Evanston they take the position, correctly, that lots of restaurants packed together in close proximity creates a dining destination that draws customers and expands the economic benefit through the expansion of that customer base.

    Next day they don't like business clustering, apparently hair salons today, massage practioners yesterday, who knows what tomorrow, because it suddenly has a "negative cumulative impact"  on a business district.  How the heck do they justify such contradictions? 

  2. Is there more to the story?

    The hair and nail salon drama is different than past hairbrained ideas in that we do not know what motivated it.  These businesses have been allowed to operate for years without the city threatening to shut them down for no real reason.  Why is this happening now?

    It is easy to understand how the city council will want to act in response to something bad happening.  Even taking a poorly thought out and ill-concieved action will be more appealing than saying "well that's the way it goes," and doing nothing

    The massage therapist regulatoin was motivated by prostitution arrests. 

    The gun buyback was motivated by a kid getting shot

    Changing speed limits which are not consistently posted and do not get enforced was motivated by a child being hit by a car.

    And when they cannot take action there is the temptation to hastily apply blame as was the case last year when the city unjustly blamed a restaruant for people getting sick after they ate some carry out.

    There is debate on whether or not the city's intended or actual actions will have a benefit, but they are all hasty responses to something bad that had happened.

    So what is the story behind Ald. Rainey's interest in changing zoning on Howard St? 

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