SPRINGDALE, Utah — Surrounded on three sides by the soaring red rock cliffs of Zion National Park, this town of about 500 has the kind of charm one would expect from a tiny tourist burg in a scenic location.

A 2008 Forbes magazine travel article included it among the "20 Prettiest Towns" in America.

Striving to protect that charm, town officials crafted an ordinance that bans "formula restaurants" from opening within the city limits. A group of eight investors challenged that ordinance, suing Springdale, 16 town officials and the town's attorneys for what the plaintiffs say is their constitutional right to open a Subway restaurant franchise.

"We knew of the ordinance by the time we contracted with Subway, but my clients looked into it and absolutely believed that ordinance was unconstitutional," said David Stucki, the lawyer representing the investors, who are incorporated in Utah as Izzy Poco. The ordinance has been in place since 2006. The suit was filed June 17 in U.S. District Court.

Chuck Thompson, executive director of the International Municipal Lawyers Association, says the investors may have a legal argument if they can prove the town of Springdale attempted to limit business ownership to local investors. Springdale's lawyer, David Church, said the ordinance serves a good purpose and was correctly applied.

Springdale's zoning ordinance, similar to others across the nation, prohibits a variety of businesses, including formula restaurants and delicatessens, because they are found to be in conflict with the town's general plan.

It defines a "formula restaurant" as a business required to provide "substantially identical named menu items, packaging, food preparation methods, employee uniforms, interior decor, signage, exterior design or name as any other restaurant or delicatessen in any other location."

The national League of Cities supports leaders who want to protect their community's character and economic development, said Gregory Minchak, a spokesman for the league.

"We're big on local control here," Minchak said.

Other towns

When preparing the ordinance, Springdale officials looked at other towns across the USA that regulate formula businesses in one way or another, including Bainbridge Island, Wash.; Bristol, R.I.; Cannon Beach, Ore.; Ogunquit and York, Maine; and seven municipalities in California, including Arcata and Solvang.

York and Ogunquit both have formula restaurant bans. Paul Lempicki, land use director and code enforcement officer for Ogunquit, said his town's 6-year-old ordinance was designed to protect the character of the seaside town and has not been challenged.

There have been no challenges to the York ordinance either, which has been on the books for six years, town planner Christine Grimando said. The town did recently consider loosening its ordinance, but Grimando said officials decided to retain the restrictions.

This month, Sister Bay, Wis., officials approved a ban that came about after a developer submitted plans for a Subway restaurant near the south village limits.

"Cities are going to make the best decisions for their communities based on what local businesses want and what local citizens want," said Minchak with the League of Cities.

Divergent opinion

The restaurant bans get mixed reviews from tourists.

Shelley Neeleman, a visitor to Springdale from Bainbridge Island, said she thinks formula restaurants would ruin the "feel" of Springdale.

Pam Lawler of Glastonbury, Conn., agreed: "This is a cute little artsy town. And it would ruin it to bring a chain restaurant in."

John Souza of Modesto, Calif., said he can get all the fast food restaurants he wants in his home state and having them in Springdale would damage the town's "uniqueness."

"I would hate to see them popping up everywhere," Souza said.

Others argued for the opening of the Subway franchise.

Carrie Spilker of nearby St. George, said that although her family prefers its favorite locally owned restaurants in Springdale, it might be nice to have a less expensive option such as Subway on occasion.

Rick Dean of Mount Shasta, Calif., said he understands the town's intentions in trying to maintain its unique atmosphere but believes that the investors have a free enterprise right to open the franchise.

"This is America, darn it," he said.

Contributing: Green Bay (Wis.) Press-Gazette

Passey reports for The Spectrum in St. George.