Anti-sprawl activists in Bakersfield, California scored big this week with a multiple slam-dunk over the issue of economic impact of big box stores. Two Wal-Marts, a Sam’s Club and a Lowe’s home improvement all have been stopped in the construction stage by a 5th. District Court of Appeals decision on March 11th. According to the Associated Press, a three judge panel issued an emergency injunction that halts building on two shopping centers with Wal-Marts as tenants in south Bakersfield. The judges suspended city decisions that permitted the stores to build. The court ruled that opponents of the superstores had shown that the city needed to verify the potential loss of other stores in the area, which would lead to urban blight. The group Bakersfield Citizens for Local Control sued the city in 2002, claiming that Wal-Mart would cause air pollution, traffic congestion and urban blight. A superior court judge in Kern County rejected the traffic and air pollution claims, but accepted the charge that the city had not investigated the concern over urban decay as smaller stores closed up. The citizens suggested that a Kohl’s store would be among those that would leave behind an empty store if the Wal-Marts and Lowe’s were built. The Kern county judge said the Wal-Mart stores had to stop, but construction on the Lowe’s and other stores could continue. The Citizens for Local Control then appealed the Kern County judge ruling, leading to this week’s 3 judge panel agreeing with residents that building on all stores must stop. There are likely to be further legal appeals of this ruling, and the city in the interim may move forward with an economic impact study. But for now, the court rulings are a major embarrassment for Wal-Mart, Lowe’s and the city of Bakersfield.
I received a call recently from the electrical contractor working on the Lowe’s project, blaming me for his workers being out of work on the Lowe’s project. I explained that I was not part of the citizen’s group in Bakersfield (although I did help stop another Wal-Mart there in the 1990s). I told him I had no sympathy with Lowe’s, since they would put smaller merchants out of business, and cause other workers to lose their jobs in the process. I told him the citizens in Bakersfield who brought the court case were using their First Amendment rights to petition government, and the courts agreed they had a valid point to make. That was why his workers were not on the job. If he didn’t support the First Amendment or the court system, maybe he ought to consider relocating his business to some third world country where stores like Wal-Mart are rapidly expanding. This case shows that citizens should never listen to those who say these big stores are a ‘done deal’. In this case, Wal-Mart is done — at least until the impact study is over. Citizens now need to insure that an independent economic impact study is conducted, using a consulting firm that has not done contracting work for Wal-Mart. For earlier stories on Bakersfield, search this database by the name of the city.