On August 1, 2009, Sprawl-Busters reported that the Planning Commission in Chico, California had rejected a proposed expansion of an existing 126,000 s.f. Wal-Mart discount store into a supercenter. The expansion would add 82,500 s.f. to the existing building. In early September, Wal-Mart appealed the Planning Commission’s denial to the city council. This week, the City Council — as expected — reversed the Planning Commission’s decision, and voted to support the expansion. But Wal-Mart’s elation soon turned to confusion. The City Council failed to give the retailer the ‘findings of fact’ it needed to move forward with the store — and one councilor even suggested that his vote could be changed to support Wal-Mart if the company came up with some goodies for the city’s low-income residents.
The existing Wal-Mart Discount store is on Forest Avenue, but the retailer had initially proposed to put up a new supercenter just over the city line to the north of Chico, on roughly 19 acres of land most recently used for a golf course. Wal-Mart began working on the Chico supercenter in 2004. But on March 17, 2008, Wal-Mart announced that its Chico Supercenter plans had been scrubbed, and the company instead would focus on expanding its existing discount store. According to the Chico Enterprise-Record, the would-have-been supercenter was a whopping 242,000 s.f. store. Wal-Mart told local officials that the decision to unplug the Chico proposal was made by an internal committee at Wal-Mart. “Under the new guidelines for our Wal-Mart Supercenter strategy, this project did not meet those guidelines,” a Wal-Mart spokesman said in 2008. “We are certainly disappointed, especially after the four years we have been working on the project,” he said. When Wal-Mart’s committee looked at the north Chico store, they found it did not meet their guidelines. Yet Wal-Mart said there was strong demand for the store in Chico. They received more than 10,000 cards of support for a Chico supercenter. (Such cards were placed in the Forest Avenue Wal-Mart in Chico and shoppers could just fill them out and drop them in a box.) “We recognize the demand and the desire to have the retail there; unfortunately, it just didn’t meet the guidelines,” the Wal-Mart spokesman said. As usual, Wal-Mart did not rule out trying to find another location in Chico. “I think we’re always exploring new opportunities to better serve our customers and we’ll continue to do so. For right now, our expansion is our focus,” the company told the Enterprise-Record. The Butte County Planning Staff gave Wal-Mart’s project poor marks, noting that it would make it harder for other business to take root in that part of the city. Planners also took a dim view of placing a big box store close to agricultural land. Wal-Mart’s proposal to build a 5 or 6 foot high sound wall to mitigate impacts on a nearby mobile home park, also was frowned upon. County fire officials stated that more traffic could make fire services harder to deliver on time. The county’s planner simply concluded that the plan was out-of-scale for the area. Wal-Mart also drew the ire of local activists in Chico, who criticized a Wal-Mart “survey” of economic impacts that they said was highly misleading. The group Chico Advocates for a Responsible Economy (C.A.R.E.) said supercenters have been a major issue in Chico since 2004, when courts sided with residents demanding that Wal-Mart comply with the California Environmental Quality Act and conduct a full environmental impact study on a proposed Supercenter.
Opposition grew when Wal-Mart announced plans for a second Supercenter just 7 miles away. In August, 2009, residents in Chico stepped up their effort to block Wal-Mart’s plan to expand their existing discount store into a supercenter. On July 30th, the Chico Planning Commission took up the Forest Avenue expansion plan — but the evening did not go well for Wal-Mart. One Commission member was quoted by KHSL TV as saying, “I don’t think this project supports our economy. I think it may actually damage it considerably, and there’s actually no clear evidence that is would result in very many local jobs.” At a subsequent meeting on August 20th, the Planning Commission turned down the superstore plan on a 5-2 vote. Wal-Mart had the right to appeal to the City Council. Some local observers predicted that the City Council would look more favorably on the Wal-Mart expansion. In fact, one City Council member inappropriately tipped his hand before the matter even reached the Council. Member Larry Wahl told KHSL TV that it was in the City Council’s hands to overturn the Planning Council decision, which he characterized as “misguided, misdirected and out to lunch.” Wal-Mart filed its appeal to the City Council on August 31st, 11 days after the Planning Commission vote. The Wal-Mart appeal stated, “We feel that the Planning Commission’s decision was in error and continue to support city staff’s recommendation for approval.” The appeal was filed by PacLand, a Washington state based developer. PacLand said the superstore was consistent with the city land use policy, and that measures have already been put into place to mitigate any adverse impacts on air quality. Wal-Mart claims that the analysis of blight caused by the store was “not based on substantial evidence and, in any event, result in a ‘battle of the experts,’ the company said. This week, the Chico City Council voted 5-2 to overturn the Planning Commission’s rejection of Wal-Mart’s expansion plan. But then the council refused to vote for a number of ‘findings’ the retailer needed to proceed. The Council voted 5-2 not to find that the project’s benefits outweighed its environmental impacts. However, the Council made it clear that it was not shutting the door completely on a larger Wal-Mart. They voted 7-0 to ask city staff to work with Wal-Mart on their environmental concerns, and to come back with the plan later this fall. Councilor Scot Gruendl asked Wal-Mart to contribute $1 million “to help low-income people buy less-polluting wood stoves to replace older appliances” — a sort of cash for clinkers program. Gruendl reasoned that Wal-Mart should offer ‘incentives’ to offset the harmful impact that increased traffic caused by their store would have on the city’s air quality.
The case will be taken up again by the Council on November 10th.
Under the first Wal-Mart superstore plan, the city was planning to annex a total of 148 acres into Chico. When Wal-Mart dropped the ball, the city had to pick up the cost of finishing the Environmental Impact Report. One city official suggested that the city wouldn’t invest the money to certify the EIR. “I’m fairly certain that means that entire thing is done, at least for now,” a city official said last year. Wal-Mart wasted 4 years trying to make sense of this senseless location.
Readers are urged to email Councilor Scott Gruendl at [email protected] with the following message: “Dear Councilor Gruendl, I hope you will vote to reject Wal-Mart’s expansion plans on Forest Avenue when it comes back in November. I know you think low-income people need better wood stoves — but Wal-Mart pollution is not going to help your air quality — and no amount of upgraded wood stoves is going to change that. The many residents of Chico who oppose this needless expansion are no doubt hoping that the City Council will not reject the findings of your Planning Commission. In addition to its harmful impact on the city’s environment, this project is not about jobs or tax revenues for Chico. It’s about market share for Wal-Mart. As the 2003 study by Ohio-based Retail Forward concluded: for every one Wal-Mart superstore that opens, two area grocery stores will close. Tell that to your constituents before you cast your next vote.”