Because a local citizen’s group had the guts, the energy and the money to take on the world’s largest retailer, there will be no Wal-Mart supercenter in Stockton, California. After three years of battles, the citizen’s group finally had their moment in court this week. The Stockton Citizens for Sensible Planning beat Wal-Mart for the second time in court this week. On August 21, 2007, Sprawl-Busters reported that the City Council in Stockton, California had joined a growing number of communities in capping the size of certain big box retail stores. By a vote of 6-1, the City Council voted to prohibit stores that exceed 100,000 square feet and which contain full-size grocery stores. The ordinance exempts discount stores like Costco or Sam’s Club. There is one Wal-Mart superstore already in Stockton on East Hammer Lane, which will not be affected, because it is already open for business. But the Wal-Mart had a second superstore planed for the north side of Stockton, that was filed before the cap took effect. When the city granted approval, the Stockton Citizens for Sensible Planning hired a lawyer and took the city to court. The citizens won in Superior Court on grounds that the city’s staff person had made procedural errors. Wal-Mart then appealed the Superior Court decision. Now, three months after Wal-Mart’s appeal, the courts have stopped Wal-Mart’s growth plans in Stockton. In a 2-1 decision, the Appeals Court upheld a San Joaquin County Superior Court ruling that the city of Stockton failed to follow state law in approving the development on a portion of Spanos Park West, being built by the Spanos Construction Co. After the environmental review for the project had been done, Spanos told the city it wanted to build a 207,000 s.f. Wal-Mart store on land that was zoned to be used for high-density residential development. The initial approval for the store in 2004 was based on a letter to Spanos from the city’s Community Development Department director. But the Superior court ruled that the letter from city staff was not sufficient under the state’s Environmental Quality Act, and that the proposed use change from a Mixed Use (MX) residential to a Wal Mart “superstore” was “a major change … that requires a discretionary act that triggers a CEQA review.” Wal-Mart then appealed the Superior Court ruling, and on November 28, 2007, the Third Appellate District Court wrote, “We shall conclude that the Director’s letter did not constitute an ‘approval’ of the Wal-Mart project. We also conclude that the Director’s letter did not constitute a determination by a ‘public agency’ since the director was not delegated and could not have been delegated authority to approve a project requiring environmental review.” The Community Development Director for Stockton had written that the plans for the store “were in substantial conformance” with a Master Development Plan adopted by the City. The City had approved the 560 acre Spanos Park West requiring the construction of high density housing in the MX zone. The original project was to include business and residential development but was later changed to retail and residential development. The letter from city staff was not posted, published or otherwise made public. The Initial Environmental Document for this land called for 2,514 residential units on 361.5 acres. It also provided for 1,700,000 sq. ft. of office space on 92.12 acres. The two parcels Wal-Mart wanted were specifically set aside for residential use. City staff clearly mishandled this application, and the Director’s letter was kept from the public, “and the only formal notice of the decision was the filing with the County Clerk two months later,” long after the opportunity to appeal the decision had elapsed. The court ruled that “appeals by members of the public… contemplates that such an approval by the Director must be capable of being known by the public, either because the approval is posted or published or otherwise distributed to the public.” The letter was described as a “Status Report,” not a final project approval… so members of the public would not know to exercise their appeal rights.” The letter also failed to state the size of the store, its location on specific parcels in the MX zone, “or that it displaced 627 units of high-density housing required by the Density Agreement, or other information that would have put the public on notice of the nature and consequences of the project.”
The City of Stockton’s General Plan provides that the City “shall maintain an adequate supply of land designated as high-density residential to meet the requirements of General Plan’s Housing
Element.” The trial court found that the developer “has agreed to provide for and construct a minimum of Nine Hundred Thirty Five (935) multi-family units within the Mixed Use component of the Project.” In fact, Spanos, the developer “in exchange for the benefits to the public of the multi-family residential development within The Business Park, desires to receive assurance that City shall grant permits and approvals for the development of the Project.” The trial court found that “the change from residential to a Superstore retail unit is a major change in the Development Plan that requires a discretionary act which triggers a CEQA review.” Instead of a Wal-Mart supercenter, the city’s plans called for high density residential uses “intended to serve residents seeking the convenience of a highly concentrated urbanized setting that minimizes the reliance on personal vehicles and optimizes the relationship between home and the workplace.” Because of the Stockton Citizens for Sensible Planning, Wal-Mart has waited three years, gone through two court appeals, and end up with no grand opening in Stockton. That means the “old Wal-Mart discount store will not shut down, and any new Wal-Mart proposal will have to be smaller than the city’s 100,000 s.f. size cap. To read the full Appellate court decision, go to: http://www.centralvalleybusinesstimes.com/links/C050885.PDF.