In a stunning victory, citizens in Clovis, California have shamed their Mayor and City Council into reversing their vote approving a Wal-Mart. They had to go to court to do it — but they won. With great embarrassment, the City Council voted unanimously this week to rescind a vote they took last year approving a Wal-Mart supercenter. On May 25, 2008, Sprawl-Busters noted that Wal-Mart had let five years slip away in the city of Clovis, California. Instead of a superstore, all the retailer can show its stockholders is a super legal bill. Local residents have been pushing back against big box stores for years. Clovis, population roughly 90,000, already has six Wal-Marts within 18 miles, and a Wal-Mart discount store on West Shaw Avenue in Clovis. But the closest superstore is 26 miles away in Dinuba, California. Wal-Mart wants to build a bigger store in the shadows of the majestic Sierra Nevada. The city manager of Clovis says that “unchecked growth elsewhere in California has slowed services and lessened the quality of life,” but in Clovis, they have “benefited from observing planning practices that have and haven’t worked in other communities.” The managers boasts, “We are building a community with a commitment to thoughtful design, planned growth and quality services.” On August 3, 2003, Sprawl-Busters reported that the City planning commissioners in Clovis, by a 3-1 vote, had given preliminary approval to a zoning change that would require conditional use permits to open super stores larger than 15,000 s.f.. The zoning change was suggested by area merchants in response to plans for a 200,000 s.f. Wal-Mart supercenter. Local grocers told city officials that the community could not sustain more grocery stores without forcing others to close, leading to empty buildings and dead malls. A representative of a group called Save Mart told the City Council that a grocery store needs 10,000 people to survive, and that Clovis, which had 77,000 people at the time, could support 10 markets — but not a huge superstore. In April, 2003, the City Council approved a site plan application for a Wal-Mart, but the decision was appealed by a group called the Association for Sensible and Informed Planning, on the grounds that no environmental impact study was done for the project. At the time of approval, the city placed a condition that would prevent any retail grocery outlet of more than 50,000 s.f. from opening in the center for five years. The proposed new ordinance would separate supermarkets from grocery stores. Stores with less than 15,000 s.f. would be called grocery stores, and would not need conditional permits. The new ordinance would “grandfather” any existing supermarkets already in Clovis. The ordinance would require an applicant to do more market studies to justify the building of another grocery store in the city. The developer of the proposed Wal-Mart opposed the new ordinance. “I think the free-market system works pretty well,” he told the newspaper. But city planners pointed out that the city had two weak grocery stores already, and if these stores close, the shopping centers around them will suffer also. A representative of Wal-Mart said they would challenge the ordinance in court. “We are going to fight any ordinance that will limit our ability to serve our customers’ needs,” Wal-Mart warned. On September 23, 2007, Sprawl-Busters noted that more than 200 people had crowded into a City Council meeting room in Clovis for a public hearing on the proposed Wal-Mart supercenter. That hearing lasted six hours until 1:30 am. The City Council voted to postpone a decision on the project’s environmental impact report. Small-business owners warned of losing shoppers to the Wal-Mart shopping center, which is planned for Clovis and Herndon avenues. Neighbors complained about increased traffic and pollution, and the Clovis police officers warned of an increase in crime. Testimony was also heard regarding the impact of the superstore on Old Town Clovis, the existing core commercial area. “When you build that super Wal-Mart, you’re going to destroy downtown Clovis,” one resident said. “You’re going to destroy the Clovis way of life.” The project would sprawl over 50-acres, and would include 10 major retailers, including a Wal-Mart Supercenter. The supercenter would be 228,754 s.f. and would be open 24 hours a day. The “old” Wal-Mart in Clovis — only 3 miles away — would close down. The city voted in October, 2007 to approve the superstore, but instead of leading to a ribbon cutting, the project led to a courtroom. The citizens group appealed to court in November, and six months later, the case began in court. Almost five years since the superstore was first presented to the city, lawyers for the anti-Wal-Mart group were in Fresno County Superior Court. According to the Fresno Bee newspaper, the hearing lasted nearly 6 hours. The Association for Sensible and Informed Planning argued that the city also did properly complete is environmental reviews of the project, or the project’s effect on endangered species. The city never determined if there is enough water for this project, opponents charge. Attorney Steve Herum, who represented the citizens group, said the city had to conduct a water-supply study because the project is larger than 500,000 s.f., the threshold under California law that requires a water supply analysis. The lawyer for the city said the project was only 492,000 s.f. — not counting the 33,000 s.f. shopping center already on the site that was built by a another developer ten years ago. Herum also said the city failed to study the superstore’s impact on urban decay, caused by the blighting of other stores that close when Wal-Mart opens. This argument was used successfully in Bakersfield, California to slow down two supercenters there — but city officials eventually approved a decay study and work on the Bakersfield stores continued. Herum said the urban decay report should have examined a 30 square mile trade area typical for a supercenter, but Wal-Mart, said 80% of shoppers will be Clovis residents. Opponents also wanted better numbers on pollution impacts caused by the increased traffic at the site. The citizen’s group said the study of endangered species also left out fairy shrimp, tiger salamanders, and burrowing owls. Wal-Mart admitted there were fairy shrimp on the site, but said there was no evidence of salamanders or owls. On August 19th, Sprawl-Busters noted that the Fresno County Superior Court had ruled in favor of the citizens, and against Wal-Mart and the city. Judge Wayne Ellison ruled that city officials failed to meet state guidelines in studying water impacts and urban decay. The court’s ruling meant the city needed to revise its environmental review to address the cumulative effects of urban decay and water availability across a wider area than just Clovis. A spokesman for the developer told the Fresno Bee his company was “committed to the project no matter how long it may take.” “The judge is saying everything you did is wiped out and you are starting over again,” Attorney Herum told the Bee. But the lawyer for Clovis said he will ask the judge to allow the city to focus on only the water and urban decay issues and leave the rest of the environmental study intact. Four years ago, the same judge forced the city to prepare an environmental report because citizen opponents challenged the project in court. The Clovis City Council finished that environmental report last October, 2007, and citizens took them to court for a second time. The latest court ruling means that Clovis has to study impacts outside of the city’s limits. “Unlike other environmental effects, such as noise and traffic, the evaluation of water supplies may demand consideration of a wide geographic range of water users, to avoid potentially disastrous consequences,” the court ruling said. The judge criticized the economic impact study prepared by the developer, which looked at impacts on a grocery store in Clovis, but not a similar store in nearby Fresno. Judge Ellison said this methodology “offered no practical reasons why those same retailers could not have been included in its market area study.” The Judge’s ruling required the city to revised two key parts of the environmental report, but it had to scrap its previous approvals, and redo the public hearings. Judge Ellison said the city’s environmental report was decertified. Clovis’ lawyer said the City Council would revise the document and hold new hearings — which could mean the Wal-Mart project would be delayed another year. In his order, the Judge said the city needed to “adequately analyze the project.” On September 15th, the Clovis City Council took the painful required vote to overturn its approval of the supercenter. According to the Fresno Bee, the council voted 5-0 to decertify the environmental report and the project’s site plan without discussion. The developer, Paynter Realty, must now undertake a study on urban decay and water and the impacts on surrounding communities, including the city of Fresno. That environmental report and site plan will then have to be reheard by the Clovis Planning Commission and then go to the City Council. In other words, the clock has been set back to the beginning again.
Clovis Mayor Bob Whalen has family roots that go back four generations in Clovis. He was first elected Mayor in 2003 — the same year that Wal-Mart’s supercenter first appeared. Whalen’s family came to Clovis to farm peaches and raise chickens. “So when talk turns to growth and the future of Clovis,” the Mayor says, “I want to make certain we don’t lose sight of the traditions that have helped make Clovis such a great place. I firmly believe that change is not progress if you lose your core.” The Mayor is proud of the Loma Vista “neighborhood village” which “allows for growth, while preserving farmland.” The Mayor is promoting this project for its “pedestrian- and bicycle-friendly pathways,” as a plan that “guarantees our growth will be smart and well thought out.” Yet, this same Mayor is supporting the huge, suburban supercenter that is neither village-friendly, nor smart growth. Readers are urged to send an email to Mayor Bob Whalen and the City Council by going to http://user.govoutreach.com/clovis/. Tell the Mayor and Council, “Now that the court has forced the City Council to go back to square one on the Wal-Mart project, it’s a good time to reconsider your growth policies in Clovis as well. It’s time to protect your wide open spaces with smart growth, not Wal-Mart sprawl. You have said, Mr. Mayor, that ‘change is not progress if you lose your core.’ One Wal-Mart is one more than enough for Clovis, and the proposed supercenter will merely shut down the existing Wal-Mart. The City Council should create neighborhood villages — not superstore sprawl. Clovis loses a major piece of its core every time a project like this is approved. It’s time for Clovis to pass a cap on the size of retail buildings, and end this game of big box musical chairs in Clovis. This time, say no to suburban sprawl, and save your citizens the expense of taking you to court.”