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.