One of the country’s most prestigious newspapers, The Washington Post, ran a story June 23, 2008 implying that when Wal-Mart comes to town, neighborhood businesses really don’t suffer. “But local proprietors and community leaders say the fears have not panned out,” the Post wrote. “Wal-Mart was just the big gorilla coming into the community,” one storeowner told the newspaper. “I think it’s perception more than reality.” But on the same day, on the other side of the country, a different story played out in a much smaller newspaper, the Record-Searchlight in the small community of Anderson, California. That story goes back to June 30, 2005, when the Court of Appeal in the Third Appellate District in California decided the case of the Anderson First Coalition against the City of Anderson and a developer FHK companies. In their appeal under the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) the Anderson First Coalition, along with two individuals, Kathy Grissom and John Wade challenged the approval by the Anderson City Council of a shopping center project anchored by a Wal-Mart Supercenter. The citizens had lost an appeal in the trial court, and on appeal to the Third Appellate District, Anderson First clamed that the trial court’s judgment violated CEQA by severing a CEQA-deficient gas station from the project, allowing the rest of the project to proceed; that the environmental impact report (EIR) inadequately evaluated urban decay, traffic, and hydrology impacts; and that the project was inconsistent with City’s general plan and City’s zoning code. In July 2003, City approved the Anderson Marketplace Project after certifying the final EIR for it. The Project is adjacent to State Highway 273. The Project encompasses 26.5 acres, and is comprised of a 184,000 s.f. Wal-Mart Supercenter, three other commercial-retail pads totaling 21,700 s.f., and a 12-position gas station. Land use approvals necessary for the Project included a general plan amendment and rezone (to change eight of the acres from residential to highway commercial), a parcel map, and a conditional use permit. Anderson Coalition petitioned for a writ of mandate, challenging the City’s approval of the Project on environmental grounds. The trial court granted the petition to the extent that the traffic impacts of the gas station, and consequently the station’s air quality impacts, had not been analyzed in the EIR. The trial court severed the gas station from the rest of the Project and ordered FHK and Wal-Mart to suspend any gas station activity until they had complied with CEQA regarding the station’s traffic and air quality effects. The trial court allowed the rest of the Project to proceed. The City then excluded the gas station from the Project and adopted new resolutions approving the Project and certifying its EIR in this context. The Coalition, represented by Attorney Steve Herum, claimed the City took the legally erroneous position that urban decay impacts are economic impacts outside CEQA’s scope, and that since the Anderson downtown was already partially blighted, it was unnecessary to evaluate whether urban decay was likely to result from the Project’s addition of over 200,000 s.f. of new retail. In other words, Anderson Coalition argued that City bypassed addressing the issue of urban decay impact on legal grounds. The Appeal court found that the City substantively studied this issue, and concluded, “there was no evidence suggesting that City’s CBD would suffer from “additional physical blight or a significant deterioration of character” as a result of the Project. The court said: “Although some competition would be expected between the Project and existing businesses in the City, the Project is more likely to compete directly with City’s existing outlying (satellite) shopping areas rather than its Central Business District. Because of the City’s proximity to Redding and Red Bluff’s big-box retailers, the City loses significant shopping and tax dollars to these two cities from its own residents (general studies show an approximate 25 percent “leakage”). The Project could stem this leakage by keeping the City’s residents shopping in the City; this could create more potential customers for goods and services within the CBD.” The Anderson First Coalition submitted its own consultant’s report that showed the Project’s likely potential to cause urban decay in City’s CBD. The report concluded “that the proposed Super Center would drive customers out of [City’s] downtown area creating blight.” That report went on to name the downtown businesses that would be severely impacted by the Super Center; these comprised two pharmacies, one florist, one hardware store, two furniture stores and a craft store. The City’s environmental impact report stated, “while some vacancies may occur, in a growing community of Anderson, these vacancies may be filled by other uses not directly in competition with Wal-Mart. Consequently, it cannot be stated with any probability that any negative physical change may occur.” The court ruled against the citizens, and the superstore opened in 2006. One of the stores mentioned in the Anderson First Coalition study as threatened, the craft store, in fact is now going out of business. According to the June 23rd. Record-Searchlight newspaper, one of the members of the Anderson First Coalition who brought the lawsuit, is now closing down. John Wade, the longtime owner of the Ben Franklin Variety, fought the Wal-Mart proposal to the end. “They said close your store right now and don’t even try to fight them. I thought I’d duke it out with them,” the 80-year-old Wade told the newspaper. After 27 years in business, the Ben Franklin store on East Street will close as soon as Wade can liquidate all his stock.
The Anderson Ben Franklin had been fixture of the central business district since the 1950s. “The day Wal-Mart opened, our business dropped and never came back — that’s been two years,” Wade explained. “They have the same thing we do, and they have more of it and sell it for less.” Wade told the Record-Searchlight he has no regrets over his battle with Wal-Mart. “All we have to do now is find a job for our two employees,” Wade said. Readers are urged to send an email to The Washington Post reporter Ylan Mui, at http://projects.washingtonpost.com/staff/email/ylan+q.+mui/ and tell the reporter what you have seen in your hometown. The Post article quotes the owner of a small mall about two miles from Wal-Mart that includes an “exotic pet store, Bank of America and IHOP.” The mall owner concludes, “We’ve been very appreciative of Wal-Mart’s presence. They say about Wal-Mart that many trees can grow in the shade of a large oak.” In reality, this tiny mall has no businesses in it like Wade’s Ben Franklin. A bank,m a restaurant and a little niche store are going to see no impacts. It’s also not true that many trees can grow in the shade of large oak. Not even grass grows in the shade of a large oak.