Since July 6, 2006, Sprawl-Busters has written 8 articles about Atascadero, California’s battle against a Wal-Mart supercenter. For close to two years, Wal-Mart has generated nothing but controversy. On October 30, 2007, Sprawl-Busters reported that the City Council in Atascadero, California had voted 4-1 to require city staff to stop processing a Wal-Mart proposal for a 195,000 s.f. store on Del Rio Road. Then-Mayor George Luna said at the time that continuing the review process would only prolong the inevitable defeat of the proposal. “I don’t see the reason for getting more information on a store I would never vote for,” the Mayor told the media. The city’s General Plan has a limit of 150,000 s.f. for big box stores — but the zoning ordinance has no such limit. On December 18, 2007 local residents filed an initiative petition entitled “Taxpayers’ Initiative Ordinance To Reduce Costly Effects Of High Intensity Urban Development By Preserving Atascadero’s Unique Small Town Character.” According to the group Oppose Wal-Mart, the Measure will ask the voters to amend the Atascadero Zoning Ordinances to approve a maximum limitation (cap) of 150,000 s.f. on the size of any single big box commercial structure and prohibit discount superstores in all zoning districts of the city. On February 4, 2008, we reported that Wal-Mart had returned with plans for a 146,507-s.f. store on Del Rio Road — a cut of about 25% in building size. This week Wal-Mart got its chance to push its superstore again. Wal-Mart dropped the automotive maintenance center and drive-through pharmacy from its plan. “The council said they could support a project under 150,000 square feet, and we’re asking the City Council to hold true to their word,” a Wal-Mart spokesman told the San Luis Obispo Tribune. “All you are doing is accepting an application,” Wal-Mart told the Council. The Council accepted the proposal for review, so Wal-Mart will have to begin the environmental review process mandated by the California Environmental Quality Review Act (CEQA). Testifying in support of the Wal-Mart supercenter, was the head of the local Firefighters Association, who said the store would help prevent budget cuts to the fire department. But opponents pointed out that Wal-Mart brings no added value to the Atascadero economy, because most of its sales will come from existing merchants. Tom Comar, a co-founder of the group Oppose Wal-Mart, said the “smaller” store, which is about the size of 3 football fields — not counting the parking lot — is still out of scale for the community. “Wal-Mart knows what the requirements of the General Plan and zoning are,” he told the Council. “Yet it insists upon going forward with a plan that is out of scale.” But after the public hearing was over, the Atascadero City Council voted 4-1 to accept the supercenter application. Current Mayor Mike Brennler, along with Councilmen George Luna, Jerry Clay and Tom O’Malley voted in favor of accepting the plan for review. Mayor Pro Tem Ellen Beraud voted against it.
The next step is for the city to hire an “independent” firm to conduct the site review, that will be paid for by the developer, the Rottman Group. It will take several months to advertise for, and hire, this consultant. The Wal-Mart application requires the city to vote for a General Plan Amendment, changing 10.3 acres of land from its current Residential zoning, to Commercial. The city is under no obligation to make this change, and must look not only at the scale issue, but what impact this store will have on the residential properties it abuts. The people who live near this 10.3 acres of residential land bought their homes assuming that the land in question would remain residential, not morph into a huge commercial retail store. The city is under no obligation to rezone land for anyone, especially when other surrounding homeowners will lose residential value. Readers are urged to call Atascadero Mayor Mike Brennler at (805) 470-3400 with the following message: “Mayor Brennler, Your city boasts of its ‘blend of natural beauty and rural lifestyle’ and its ‘oak-studded hills, creeks, and scenic vistas.’ A suburban sprawl supercenter does not fit into that picture. Regardless of whether Wal-Mart is 195,000 or 146,000 square feet — the Council is under no requirement to rezone residential land. Either size store will have a major impact on the character of the surrounding area, and is incompatible with the ‘rural lifestyle’ you brag about. This scale of store will dramatically alter the goals of your General Plan, and make Atascadero look like so many other anonymous California towns. You don’t have to accept a store three times the size of a football field. You can do your environmental review, but remember that there is no mandate to rezone land — especially if it harms the neighbors who already live there.”