Once again, Wal-Mart’s high-handed land use plans have run into legal trouble. Instead of getting ready to break ground in the city of Galt, California, Wal-Mart is now breaking open its corporate piggy bank to pay more legal bills.
On April 22, 2010, Sprawl-Busters reported that by a margin of just one vote, the city council in Galt gave Wal-Mart permission to fill more than 11 acres of land with a sea of asphalt surrounded by a wall of concrete. The Galt City Council made one of the biggest land use mistakes in its history, in front of one of the biggest crowds in history. But the deal does not end with the City Council vote.
By a split vote of 3-2, Galt City Councilors gave Wal-Mart a green light to build a 133,279 s.f. superstore in their community. Stores larger than 140,000 s.f. are banned in Galt, so this project pushes up to the limit.
As in most cities, local officials in Galt believe a new Wal-Mart means jobs and revenue — but they voted with no clear understanding of the net economic impact that happens when Wal-Mart comes to town. In Galt, a new Wal-Mart will likely result is just a shifting of market share from existing merchants to the giant retailer.
On September 18, 2007, Sprawl-Busters reported that the City Council in Galt was reviewing a proposed zoning ordinance that would ban any retail store larger than 140,000 s.f., if it had more than 10% of its interior retail space devoted to non-taxable goods, like groceries.
The law in Galt also requires stores between 100,000 to 139,999 s.f. to apply for a conditional use permit. Developers also have to produce impact studies on the project’s effect on crime, urban decay, the economy and the project’s general compatibility within a neighborhood.
In late September of 2007, the city’s Planning Commission approved by a vote of 4-1 the big box ordinance, which officials said would apply to the proposed Wal-Mart supercenter in Galt. The commission lowered the size limit for certain stores to 120,000 s.f. that devote 10% of their floor space to selling groceries, or non-taxable goods. The Lodi News said the supercenter has 19% of grocery space, but usually a supercenter has 35% to 45% grocery space.
Planning Commissioner Eugene Davenport told the media two years ago that he didn’t trust companies like Wal-Mart. “It’s unacceptable that we are letting these corporations come in and tell us what they are going to do,” he said. “It is our job to protect the citizens of Galt with smart planning.”
Within weeks after the Planning Commission vote, the Galt City Council voted 4-1 to adopt the big box ordinance. But Wal-Mart was not deterred. Two and a half years later, Wal-Mart was back before the Galt Planning Commission. So were the plan’s opponents, the Galt Citizens for Sensible Planning.
The Planning Commission had to review Wal-Mart’s Conditional Use Permit, Final Environmental Impact Report, Compliance with the Big Box Ordinance, and appeal of the Community Development Director’s Notice of Decision on Site Plan and Design Review.
The city’s Planning staff bent Galt’s General Plan to fit Wal-Mart’s plan. Incredibly, planning staff concluded that “The proposed project would expand and provide new retail options in close proximity to local consumers by providing daytime and nighttime shopping opportunities.” Staff also concluded that Galt is “underserved by retail options” despite the easy access to other Wal-Mart stores in the area. This project is also only 60 feet from the patios of nearest residential homes. A 12 foot sound wall has to be built to buffer nearby homes from the noise of this project.
In Galt, projects also have to show a positive fiscal balance for the city, and staff concluded that Wal-Mart would generate $497,624 annually in revenues from property and sales taxes, and cost only $37,890 in city costs. Staff said the project would create another “$230,000 per year in sales tax revenue that is ear marked for police services only.” But the city failed to examine the fiscal impacts of other stores closing, and falling sales tax revenues.
The city’s General Plan also says that “smart growth principles… shall be incorporated into development project proposals.” Staff could not find any smart growth principles, so instead praised the project’s use of “ozone friendly refrigerants” and “energy-efficient HVAC units.”
Finally, developments in Galt are supposed to be “compatible with neighboring uses.” The planning staff found that “impacts related to cumulative traffic and cumulative
aesthetics would remain significant and unavoidable.” In other words, neighbors will just have to live with those negative impacts.
On March 28, 2010, Sprawl-Busters reported that a crowd of 200 people showed up for the Wal-Mart hearing. The Planning Commission voted 4-1 to approve the 133,279 s.f. Wal-Mart proposal. But the Planning Commission’s vote led to an appeal by opponents to the Galt City Council. In a small concession to the neighbors, the Planning Commission voted to cut back the operating hours for the store to 6 a.m. to 11 p.m.
Residents repeated their position that they wanted a store no bigger than 100,000 s.f., which was supported by one Commissioner. “I’m not going to approve this at 130,000 square feet. There is no city infrastructure to support it,” the Commissioner said.
But on April 20, 2010, the Galt City Council — by one vote — approved the Wal-Mart superstore. There were so many people at the hearing it had to be moved to a larger venue. The store will include 25,000 s.f. for the sale of groceries. The City Council also rejected the neighbor’s request that the store have reduced operating hours. The Council will allow the store to open at 5 AM, and close at midnight. Wal-Mart argued that the longer hours would allow workers to stock shelves, clean and cook.
One day after the City Council ruling, Attorney William Kopper, of Davis,California, who is representing the Galt Citizens for Sensible Planning (GCSP), told the media that it was likely the Council decision would be appealed in court. Kopper repeated the charge that the project violated the city’s municipal code and California’s Environmental Quality Review Act. A spokesman for GCSP, Rich Viera, told the Lodi News, “It is idiotic. The only justification is sales tax money.”
This week, less than a month after the Council vote, the Sacramento Business Journal reports that the GCSP has filed their lawsuit, naming the city and Wal-Mart as defendants. The city manager told the Journal he was not surprised by the litigation, and added, “It’s unfortunate we have to go through this process. We expected it based on the comment letters we were receiving all along.”
The city manager also noted that most Wal-Mart proposals get challenged legally, so the city “went above and beyond” the legal review requirements to analyze the impacts from the store. The manager said Galt officials were confident they would win the lawsuit — but he lamented that the move would throw the project off schedule, and cause the city to lose sales taxes and “shopping opportunities.”
The city also planned ahead for an appeal, and got Wal-Mart to sign an “indemnification agreement” that requires the company to pay all legal bills incurred defending the conditional use permit being challenged. City taxpayers — many of them Wal-Mart opponents — will not have to use public tax dollars to defend Wal-Mart.
Galt’s retail area is perhaps best known for the Galt Market, which began as a farmer’s market at the old Sacramento County Fairgrounds in the 1950’s, and today is an expansive open-air collection of over 400 vendors covering ten acres of great deals.
As the city says, “the Galt Market is an inviting place to spend a relaxed day, looking for bargains, having some good food and taking home fresh produce for dinner. There is truly nothing like it anywhere else, as it’s over three quarters of a million annual customers can testify.” In this context, a suburban sprawl Wal-Mart makes no sense at all. It is incompatible with the ‘nothing like its anywhere else’ character of Galt.
This case now moves to the courts. In terms of impact on other stores, the city’s planning staff report found that “At worst, $6.5 million in food store sales will be diverted away from existing primary market area retailers… the Project would not result in adverse impacts to retailers because although some stores would experience reduced sales in the short-term, these stores are expected to achieve stabilized sales within three years.” But this is just wishful thinking. An independent assessment of this store’s impact has not been done.
Readers are urged to email Galt Mayor Randy Shelton at rshelto[email protected] with the following message: “Dear Mayor Shelton, Good land use decisions never end up in a win/lose situation. Your Wal-Mart vote forced neighbors to lose big-time. This project is far too close to homes, and far too large for the neighborhood. Yet you sacrificed their quality of life and the value of their homes just to build another superstore in the area.
You told voters, “We need to… bring responsible Smart Growth” to Galt. Your residents have lots of places to find big box stores nearby — but there is only one Galt Market. This store will harm locally-serving retail uses. One independent study of Wal-Mart has concluded that for every one Wal-Mart superstore that opens, two grocery stores will close.
Before you start counting your future revenues from this project, remember that it’s the net revenues you need to calculate — not the gross revenue. Wal-Mart moves money from existing cash registers to its own stores. That is economic displacement, not economic development.
This project is inconsistent with your General Plan in many ways. Your decision has now lead to a courtroom. At least you can tell taxpayers that not one dime of city money will be spent on legal fees during this appeal. You clearly have a lot of voters upset about this project. It’s not too late for the city to urge Wal-Mart to reduce the size of its footprint on its own. These kinds of settlements have been negotiated many times elsewhere. Wal-Mart has proposed a 75,000 s.f. superstore in Torrance, California, for example.
If you show some leadership, it is still possible to end up with a win-win situation — but you will never get that out of Wal-Mart unless you push harder for the rights of the homeowners and taxpayers living around that site.”