On July 24th on a 3-1 vote, City planning commissioners in Clovis, California gave preliminary approval to a zoning change that would require conditional use permits to open super stores that are larger than 15,000 square feet. The zoning change was suggested by area merchants in response to plans for a 200,000 s.f. Wal-Mart supercenter. Although the developer did not reveal who his tenant was,according to the Independent newspaper, Wal-Mart has admitted the Clovis supercenter is a Wal-Mart. Local grocers told city officials that the community cannot sustain more grocery stores without forcing others to close, leading to empty buildings and dead malls. A representative of Save Mart told the City Council that a grocery store needs 10,000 people to survive, and that Clovis, which has 77,000 people, could support 10 markets — but not a huge superstore. Last April, the City Council approved a site plan application for the 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 square feet 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 opposes the new ordinance. “I think the free-market system works pretty well,” he told the newspaper. But city planners point out that the city has two weak grocery stores already, and if these stores close, the shopping centers around them will suffer also. The Clovis City Council will take up the proposed zoning change in September. A representative of Wal-Mart said they would challenge the ordinance in court. (see related story about Contra Costa,CA). “We are going to fight any ordinance that will limit our ability to serve our customers’ needs,” the Wal-Mart representative said.
City officials have every right to place a higher burden of reporting on major developments. A number of communities across the country require projects that are considered “major developments” to undergo a higher order of review, with more studies, etc. Wal-Mart can puff about the issue, and invoke their customers — but zoning has nothing to do with how well Wal-Mart or any other retailer serves their customers. Zoning looks at the health, safety and welfare of its citizens. If overdevelopment hurts property values, or hurts city revenues, it can be used as a reason to reject a project. The use of special,or conditional permits, to regulate large scale projects is an important local police power of cities and towns. The Clovis approach, which merely requires a higher level of review for stores above a certain threshold, is clearly within their legal right to do — threat of a Wal-Mart appeal, or not.