Los Angeles City Councilwoman Jan Perry is launching the largest Big Mac attack the nation has ever seen.
Last year, Perry proposed a one-year moratorium on new fast-food restaurants in South Los Angeles. She told the Business Journal last week she wants to make it permanent.
The ban, for which Perry has already gathered support, would prohibit new fast-food outlets in 32 square miles of the city, including Watts, Crenshaw and Baldwin Hills an area with perhaps hundreds of the restaurants.
The ban is intended to stop the proliferation of eateries that serve unhealthful food and save the remaining vacant land in the area for other development. It would be the largest such ban in the nation, according to experts familiar with such issues.
The ban, like the moratorium, would apply to eateries such as McDonald's, KFC and Taco Bell. Existing restaurants would be allowed to continue operating.
"What I hope happens is we make it a permanent ordinance, so we can continue our efforts to protect people's health in a permanent way," Perry said. "It's also a land-use issue. We don't want to lose whatever available land there is to activities that are detrimental to people's health."
Perry proposed up to a two-year moratorium in September, but by December had settled on a one-year moratorium. Now she wants it to be followed by a permanent ban.
There is precedent for cities regulating the fast-food business, at least partly based on public health concerns.
The cities of Calistoga in Northern California and Concord, Mass., for example, have banned new fast-food restaurants in parts of their cities. Health issues were cited, though both bans relied on traditional zoning issues, such as aesthetics, as a legal basis.
And New York City is banning artificial trans fats starting next month in all restaurant foods. The ban only targets a single ingredient, but is based on the scientific link between trans fat consumption and heart disease.
However, there has never been a wide-scale ban of this size. Perry wants it to apply to the portion of her district south of the Santa Monica (10) Freeway and all of neighboring City Councilman Bernard Parks' district. It also includes a tiny section of City Councilman Ed Reyes' district. All in all, that comprises 700,000 L.A. residents living in 32 square miles.
Parks said he would support making the proposed one-year moratorium permanent.
"The expectation is that it will then roll into a permanent ordinance," said Parks. "I think so highly of it, we are going to insist to our (city) planning director that it become part of our community plans."
The California Restaurant Association, a state trade group, had previously expressed concerns over Perry's proposed moratorium last year. A spokesman said it would not comment on the ban, because it had just learned of it from the Business Journal.
But in an e-mail interview, Lara Diaz-Dunbar, senior vice president of government affairs at the association, reiterated concerns about Perry's proposed moratorium. She said any law that chooses "winners" and "losers" in an industry sets a "troubling precedent."
"While the California Restaurant Association shares council member Perry's concerns about the health of her constituents, we question whether this ordinance is the best approach to promoting nutrition and healthy lifestyles," said Diaz-Dunbar, adding that more should be done to promote health education.
Representatives of Carpinteria-based CKE Restaurants Inc., the parent of Carl's Jr. and several other fast-food companies, did not return telephone calls for comment. A regional spokesman for Oak Brook, Ill.-based McDonald's Corp. referred the matter to a local franchisee.
The proposed moratorium will be discussed by the council's Planning and Land Use Management Committee in July and could be voted on by the full council in August.
But one issue that is unclear is exactly how many restaurants either a moratorium or ban would apply to.
Perry estimated that 40 percent of the city's fast-food restaurants are in the 32-square-mile area. But city planning documents do not indicate exactly how many fast-food restaurants there are in total. However, according to a canvas conducted by the Los Angeles Times, the area has 900 restaurants and 45 percent are fast food, which would mean about 400 fast-food outlets are in South Los Angeles.
The proposed language of the moratorium, which was released last year, defined fast-food outlets as restaurants that have a "limited menu, items prepared in advance or prepared or heated quickly, no table orders, and food served in disposable wrapping or containers."
However, Perry told the Business Journal that the ban would not apply to eateries such as Subway, which has built an ad campaign around its purportedly healthier fare, and La Salsa, which serves higher-quality Mexican fast casual food.
She has made it clear that her intentions are to improve the restaurant food choices for South Los Angeles residents.
"You can go to any park (in my district) and see the level of childhood obesity," said Perry, who said she has received an overwhelmingly positive response from constituents for the proposed moratorium. "The level of obesity in my district is shocking."
Indeed, data from the Los Angeles County Department of Public Health indicates that obesity is a problem there. A 2007 study by the department found that 29 percent of children living in South L.A. were obese. By comparison, it was 23 percent countywide.
Assuming the ordinance passes later this summer, Perry said she will work to further promote South L.A. to restaurateurs and chains that operate sit-down eateries. The area already has incentives in place, like an expedited plan-check process for new sit-down restaurants.
"Hopefully we will be able to attract sit-down restaurants to move to the district in a way that hasn't been experienced in probably 20 years," said Perry, whose wish list for new restaurants in the area includes Souplantation, HomeTown Buffet and Marie Callender's. "They are oriented toward family and the pricing is decent and reasonable and you get a good value."
What's also unclear is how hard the fast-food industry might fight such an extensive ban in the nation's second largest city a proposal that is likely to garner lots of attention.
Real estate attorney Lew Feldman said there is a precedent of courts upholding governmental decisions that relate to zoning jurisdictions in the interest of public health.
"Public health and safety is a legitimate objective of zoning and it is often used to promote orderly zoning and enhance beauty and stabilize real estate values," said Feldman, a partner with Goodwin Procter LLP in Los Angeles.
The ordinance also could leave the door open a crack for new fast-food franchisees in South L.A. Parks noted that they could still try to open eateries in the area by applying for conditional use permits.
Lindsay Hughes, the local franchisee McDonald's referred the Business Journal to for comment, said, "McDonald's wants to be a good, socially responsible neighborhood, no matter where we are."
But Hughes, who owns two outlets in South L.A., did not directly address the proposed ordinance or a permanent ban.
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