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It didn’t garner much attention, but Prince George’s County, Md., officials took steps last fall to deputize themselves as the new “Food Police” for its citizens. Unlike other recent efforts to restrict the food and beverage choices of consumers, such as the new rule in New York City banning large sizes of sugary drinks, this action didn’t emanate from a committee or board focused on health or nutrition.
It was the work of the county’s Planning, Zoning and Economic Development Committee. The PZED Committee, which ironically has jurisdiction over the county’s Economic Development Corp., expanded the power of the county to review commercial use and occupancy permits “in an effort to enhance the public health through availability of healthful eating alternatives, reduction of detrimental food and beverage consumption, and to reduce blight.”
This is not the first time local governments and unelected community boards have successfully used their zoning powers to regulate the type of food that can be sold in particular areas. From San Francisco to Minneapolis to Fort Lauderdale, the use of land use zoning powers and health impact assessments (HIA) to address public health issues is becoming a real and growing threat to commercial development. Los Angeles was one of the first and most notable examples when, in 2011, the city banned the expansion of fast-food restaurants through rules that originated in its Planning and Land Use Management Committee.
In a manner similar to fiscal or environmental impact studies, communities such as Prince George’s County are increasingly undertaking HIAs as a way to, as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) states, “evaluate the potential health effects of a plan, project or policy before it is built or implemented.” With the endorsement of the CDC, the HIA process is able to project a level of legitimacy beyond what is justified to protect public health.
In reality, HIAs are being hijacked by anti-growth and anti-corporate activists who would prefer the government pick the winners and losers in commercial development. These folks would rather have an organic produce market in every neighborhood in America, regardless of whether the residents actually have the interest or financial resources to stock up on hydroponic arugula. Market forces be damned!
To my point, an HIA in Trenton, N.J., professes that “the distribution of goods is not equal as grocery stores in poorer areas are less likely to sell healthy foods, ultimately posing additional costs on society. Policy interventions can help correct these market failures.”
When a government uses arbitrary standards to steer economic development, rather than allowing the market forces to decide, the real losers are the entrepreneurs and business developers who would otherwise bring jobs to that city, and the people who would fill those jobs.
In case it’s not perfectly obvious, convenience stores are directly in the crosshairs of many HIA undertakings. With a product line that includes many “Nanny State” no-nos like tobacco, snack food and alcohol, HIAs often single out c-stores as a threat to the community. In the case typified by Prince George’s County, regulators will now give special attention to applications for new or expanded use and occupancy permits for “food or beverage stores, eating and drinking establishments, gas stations and Laundromats.”
This is not the first time c-stores have faced opposition to new units. The difference is that nowadays national advocacy groups are broadening the fight well beyond environmental impact to include health and quality of life factors. Armed with sample legislation, campaign toolkits and slanted studies, the “anti” crowd is raising the stakes in local city halls and county commission chambers throughout the nation.
Faced with this increasingly sophisticated foe, we must better educate local elected officials about the community economic benefits of the c-store industry. We must also directly engage the advisory councils and community organizations that tend to develop HIAs. The input of the business community is rarely part of the deliberation process, but as taxpayers and employers of taxpayers, we must demand the voice of business be heard.
Joe Kefauver is managing partner of Parquet Public Affairs, a national issue management, communications, government relations and reputation assurance firm that specializes in service sector industries. Parquet's clients include Fortune 500 corporations, trade associations, regional businesses and non-profit organizations. For more information, go to www.ParquetPA.com.
Editor’s note: The opinions expressed in this column are the author's and do not necessarily reflect the views of Convenience Store News.