After six years of fighting Wal-Mart, residents in Clovis, California are understandably cynical about their elected officials. But this week, the City Council sunk below the weight of an apparent ‘money-for-votes’ scandal. A Wal-Mart developer has made what appears to be a ‘pay off’ for a critical swing vote in support of a huge superstore. The controversy in Clovis has a long history. On September 17, 2008, Sprawl-Busters reported that the citizens in Clovis, California had shamed their Mayor and City Council into reversing their vote approving a Wal-Mart. The residents had to go to court to do it — but they won. With great embarrassment, the City Council voted unanimously to rescind a vote they took in 2007 approving a Wal-Mart supercenter. Local residents have been pushing back against big box stores for more than six years. Clovis, population roughly 90,000, already has six Wal-Marts within 18 miles, and a Wal-Mart discount store on West Shaw Avenue in Clovis. But the closest superstore is 26 miles away in Dinuba, California. Wal-Mart wants to build a bigger store in the shadows of the majestic Sierra Nevada. On August 3, 2003, Sprawl-Busters reported that the City planning commissioners in Clovis, by a 3-1 vote, had given preliminary approval to a zoning change that would require conditional use permits to open super stores larger than 15,000 s.f.. The zoning change was suggested by area merchants in response to plans for a 200,000 s.f. Wal-Mart supercenter. Local grocers told city officials that the community could not sustain more grocery stores without forcing others to close, leading to empty buildings and dead malls. A representative of a group called Save Mart told the City Council that a grocery store needs 10,000 people to survive, and that Clovis, which had 77,000 people at the time, could support 10 markets — but not a huge superstore. In April, 2003, the City Council approved a site plan application for a 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 s.f. 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 opposed the new ordinance. “I think the free-market system works pretty well,” he told the newspaper. But city planners pointed out that the city had two weak grocery stores already, and if these stores close, the shopping centers around them will suffer also. A representative of Wal-Mart said they would challenge the ordinance in court. “We are going to fight any ordinance that will limit our ability to serve our customers’ needs,” Wal-Mart warned. On September 23, 2007, Sprawl-Busters noted that more than 200 people had crowded into a City Council meeting room in Clovis for a public hearing on the proposed Wal-Mart supercenter. That hearing lasted six hours until 1:30 am. The City Council voted to postpone a decision on the project’s environmental impact report. Small-business owners warned of losing shoppers to the Wal-Mart shopping center, which was planned for Clovis and Herndon avenues. Neighbors complained about increased traffic and pollution, and the Clovis police officers warned of an increase in crime. Testimony was also heard regarding the impact of the superstore on Old Town Clovis, the existing core commercial area. “When you build that super Wal-Mart, you’re going to destroy downtown Clovis,” one resident said. “You’re going to destroy the Clovis way of life.” The project would sprawl over 50-acres, and would include 10 major retailers, including a Wal-Mart Supercenter. The supercenter would be 228,754 s.f. and would be open 24 hours a day. The “old” Wal-Mart in Clovis — only 3 miles away — would close down. The city voted in October, 2007 to approve the superstore, but instead of leading to a ribbon cutting, the project led to a courtroom. The citizens group appealed to court in November, 2007, and six months later, the case began in court. Almost five years after the superstore was first presented to the city, lawyers for the anti-Wal-Mart group were in Fresno County Superior Court. According to the Fresno Bee newspaper, the hearing lasted nearly 6 hours. The Association for Sensible and Informed Planning argued that the city did not properly complete its environmental reviews of the project, or its effect on endangered species. The city never determined if there was enough water for this project. Attorney Steve Herum, who represented the citizens group, said the city had to conduct a water-supply study because the project is larger than 500,000 s.f., the threshold under California law that requires a water supply analysis. The lawyer for the city said the project was only 492,000 s.f. — not counting the 33,000 s.f. shopping center already on the site that was built by a another developer ten years ago. Herum also said the city failed to study the superstore’s impact on urban decay, caused by the blighting of other stores that close when Wal-Mart opens. This argument was used successfully in Bakersfield, California to slow down two supercenters there. Herum said the urban decay report should have examined a 30 square mile trade area typical for a supercenter, but Wal-Mart, said 80% of shoppers would be Clovis residents. Opponents also wanted better numbers on pollution impacts caused by the increased traffic at the site. The citizen’s group said the study of endangered species also left out fairy shrimp, tiger salamanders, and burrowing owls. Wal-Mart admitted there were fairy shrimp on the site, but said there was no evidence of salamanders or owls. On August 19, 2007, Sprawl-Busters noted that the Fresno County Superior Court had ruled in favor of the citizens, and against Wal-Mart and the city. Judge Wayne Ellison ruled that city officials failed to meet state guidelines in studying water impacts and urban decay. The court’s ruling meant the city needed to revise its environmental review to address the cumulative effects of urban decay and water availability across a wider area than just Clovis. A spokesman for the developer told the Fresno Bee his company was “committed to the project no matter how long it may take.” “The judge is saying everything you did is wiped out and you are starting over again,” Attorney Herum told the Bee. But the lawyer for Clovis said he would ask the judge to allow the city to focus on only the water and urban decay issues and leave the rest of the environmental study intact. Four and a half years ago, the same judge forced the city to prepare an environmental report because citizen opponents challenged the project in court. The Clovis City Council finished that environmental report in October, 2007, and citizens took them to court for a second time. The September, 2008 court ruling meant that Clovis had to study impacts outside of the city’s limits. “Unlike other environmental effects, such as noise and traffic, the evaluation of water supplies may demand consideration of a wide geographic range of water users, to avoid potentially disastrous consequences,” the court ruling said. The judge criticized the economic impact study prepared by the developer, which looked at impacts on a grocery store in Clovis, but not a similar store in nearby Fresno. Judge Ellison said this methodology “offered no practical reasons why those same retailers could not have been included in its market area study.” The Judge’s ruling required the city to revise two key parts of the environmental report, but it had to scrap its previous approvals, and redo the public hearings. Judge Ellison said the city’s environmental report was decertified. Clovis’ lawyer said the City Council would revise the document and hold new hearings — which could mean the Wal-Mart project would be delayed another year. In his order, the Judge said the city needed to “adequately analyze the project.” On September 15, 2008 the Clovis City Council took the painful required vote to overturn its approval of the supercenter. The council voted 5-0 to decertify the environmental report and the project’s site plan without discussion. The developer, Paynter Realty, had to undertake a study on urban decay and water and the impacts on surrounding communities, including the city of Fresno. On April 24, 2009, seven months after the court threw out the environmental study, Sprawl-Busters noted that the Clovis Planning Commissioners were back in the news. The Commissioners voted unanimously again to approve the Wal-Mart shopping center project, including a Kohl’s, Petco, and Bed, Bath and Beyond. One Commissioner said he voted for the project because it would bring more jobs. Two Commissioners attempted to remove the grocery store component of the Wal-Mart superstore, and make the facility more pedestrian-oriented — but their motion failed. The revised water report concluded that the project had a water entitlement greater than the expected water demand. The consultant studying urban decay, CB Richard Ellis, which has real estate contracts with Wal-Mart, found that “some closures of market area stores could occur,” but that it will not add to urban decay. Attorney Herum, representing the citizens, said the water report was still incorrect because the land is not being farmed and water is not required on the land currently. He also said the urban decay report should be thrown out because Wal-Mart uses CB Richard Ellis as a real estate broker for its dead stores. Ellis could gain financially from this project if the ‘old’ Wal-Mart in Clovis goes on the market. On June 29, 2009 The Clovis City Council approved certification of an environmental document. The vote was 3-2 with Mayor Harry Armstrong and Council Member Lynne Ashbeck opposed because they did not agree with the urban decay portion of the study. The council also supported the project’s conditions of approval, which limited Wal-Mart’s hours of operation to 5 a.m. to midnight instead of 24 hours. Managers at two area grocery stores, Food 4 Less and Save Mart, said their companies would likely close stores if a supercenter was built. This week, the public got an unusual look at how these Wal-Mart projects get approved. The Fresno Bee reports that the developer gave $2,900 to the key City Council who cast the deciding vote in the 3-2 Wal-Mart win. Paynter Realty & Investment gave Councilor Bob Whalen $2,900 towards his campaign to run for the California State Assembly. The donation was made the day after Whalen voted for Wal-Mart. The Bee quoted the former lawyer for the California Politial Practices Commission as critical of the contribution. “The appearance of it is just striking,” the attorney said. “It looks like: ‘You voted our way and here’s our money.'” Whalen admitted to the newspaper that “the timing of this one is not particularly good.” He told the media his vote to support Wal-Mart had nothing to do with the contribution from Wal-Mart’s developer. “It’s not uncommon in politics that we get contributions from folks who are in front of the council.” Paynter admitted that he has given contributions to all 5 members of the Clovis City Council. Since 2004, Whalen has received almost $7,000 in campaign contributions from Paynter.
The residents of Clovis, California are getting the best real estate projects that money can buy. The exchange of votes for money is rarely done in public, but it is as old as politics itself. This 490,000 s.f. project has been a source of controversy for six years now. When the Clovis City Council approved the environmental report in October, 2007, the vote passed on a one vote margin of 3-2. Wal-Mart has asked the city to be allowed to keep its store open 24 hours a day, but the Clovis police requested that the store be open only from 5 a.m. to midnight. One Council member who voted against the plan said the environmental study was “very weak,” and that he had called 50 Clovis residents, and found 47 of them were against the Wal-Mart mall. He said there were not enough people in Clovis to support three supermarkets within one mile of the Wal-Mart location. He asked Wal-Mart to make a 10 year commitment to keep this store open — but Wal-Mart would not make that commitment. That Council member, Harry Armstrong, is the Mayor of Clovis. Mayor Armstrong has been in public life since 1970. He’s served as Mayor five times, and used to work for a locally-owned dairy business. Readers are urged to send an email to Mayor Armstrong and the City Council by going to http://user.govoutreach.com/clovis/. Tell the Mayor and Council, “The controversy over Bob Whalen’s political contributions from developers is just one more bad taste that this Wal-Mart project has created. One Wal-Mart is one more than enough for Clovis. You have other area merchants saying they will shut down stores if this supercenter is built — and you still vote to approve it! Wal-Mart will shut down its existing discount store — and take other area merchants with it. The City Council should create neighborhood villages — not superstore sprawl. Clovis loses a major piece of its core if this project is approved. This is not a jobs or revenue generator — because most of its sales will be transferred from other cash registers — much of it from Wal-Mart’s own discount store that it is cannibalizing. You want economic development, but you’re condoning economic displacement. Mayor Armstrong is right: you don’t have enough consumers to support three major grocery stores. Tell Councilor Whalen to give Paynter back his money. Clovis should not be for sale to the highest bidder. Not only has the City Council repeatedly ignored the wishes of its own voters — but now it has added ‘money politics’ to its list of mistakes. Council Whalen is right to say that the timing of his $2,900 contribution was not great. Neither is the Wal-Mart development.”