Construction at two Wal-Mart supercenters in Bakersfield, California will grind to a halt because of a court order this week. The state’s 5th District Court of Appeal said city officials in Bakersfield didn’t properly conduct public hearings and didn’t consider the environmental, social and economic impacts of the retail development. The Court directed the city to do another environmental review in the Wal-Mart case. The court’s decision was a major victory for the citizens’ group which filed the lawsuit in March, 2003 against two developments, each containing a 220,000 s.f. Wal-Mart Supercenter as its primary anchor tenant. The two developments are less than 4 miles apart, but Bakersfield city officials failed to consider the effect the projects would have on each other. The court also ruled that the city didn’t consider what impact the projects would have economically on the rest of the city. The developers, oblivious to the lawsuit, continued building a Kohl’s and a Lowe’s. A proper environmental review, that examines the impact of both developments on the community, could force developers to alter their original plans. But a Bakersfield city attorney would not go so far as to suggest buildings would have to come down. “At a minimum it will produce delay,” the official told the Napa News. “We will take appropriate steps to make sure those defects are corrected.”
To city officials, the court ruling this week is a major embarassment, but probably nothing more. In this case, as in the case of Decorah, Iowa, where it was also found that the proceedings were not properly conducted, developers assume that the courts will not force them to tear down buildings, so they go ahead and build them. In Decorah, the developer was found to have improperly filled in a floodplain, but the built store on the banks of the Iowa river was not torn down. In Bakersfield, the citizens have shown just how bogus the city’s review process was, completely ignoring the true impacts of these huge projects on the community, and even on each others. City officials, in their zeal to get these developments approved, cut corners and denied citizen’s their legal protections under California’s Environmental Quality Review Act. The 5th district decision states that under CEQRA, cities must look at the probability that the development could cause the eventual closure of local stores — but only when there is evidence that points in that direction. “Many factors are relevant, including the size of the project, the type of retailers and their market areas and the proximity of other retail shopping opportunities,” judge Timothy Buckley wrote.
The court also said that opponents don’t have to produce expert economic studies to trigger this review — even community residents’ experiences are considered evidence. “While these individuals are not experts in any sense of the word, their firsthand observations should not casually be dismissed as immaterial because (quoting from case law) ‘relevant personal observations are evidence,'” the Judge wrote. Bakersfield residents testified during the city hearings that dozens of former Wal-Mart sites sat empty in other states. Wal-Mart has maintained between 350 and 400 “dark stores” across the country since at least 1999. The Judge noted that Wal-Mart was not a defendant in the case, and wrote, “Nor do we affirm (the) view that Wal-Mart, Inc., is a destructive force that threatens the viability of local communities. Wal-Mart is not a named party in these actions and we rebuff (opponents’) transparent attempt to demonize this corporation.” But the court did say that the scale of supercenters was a valid concern: “Unlike the vast majority of stores, many Supercenters operate 24 hours per day, seven days per week. Such extended operational hours raise questions concerning increased or additional adverse impacts relating to lights, noise, traffic and crime.” For earlier stories on the Bakersfield dispute, search Newsflash by the city’s name.