Once again, local citizens have demonstrated that you can fight Wal-Mart — and win.
On June 18, 2011, Sprawl-Busters reported that another community had found itself in court over approval of a Wal-Mart superstore. The litigation traced back to a January, 2011 ruling by the Planning Commission in Tehachapi, California. The Board voted 4-1 to green light a 165,000 s.f. Wal-Mart superstore. The Commission voted to approve the environmental report for the project, and to endorse the site plan.
The residents of Tehachapi paid a $1,561 fee to appeal the Planning Commission’s decision to their elected officials on the City Council. Local businessman Henry Schaeffer paid for and filed the appeal. To no one’s surprise, on May 19, 2011, the City Council took the same vote to support the Wal-Mart project.
This project at that point had been through nearly a three and a half year hearing process-and controversy has dogged it every step of the way. “Citizen” Wal-Mart created a website and recruited citizens to join its “Tehachapi Citizens Action Network” to support the project at hearings. Yet at the Planning Commission hearing, the Tehachapi News estimated that as many as 700 people turned out — many of them staying until almost midnight before the vote was taken. The high school gym bleachers were filled to capacity, and the crowd overflowed into the lobby. “This is the greatest show of public interest in a project we have had in a long time,” one Planning Commissioner said before the vote was taken. Opponents charged that Wal-Mart’s suburban sprawl would dramatically change the character of Tehachapi.
Immediately after the Planning Commission vote, Tehachapi residents against the superstore made it clear they were not finished. “I don’t think it’s a done deal,” said Shannon Turner, who started collecting resident signatures a few weeks before the final vote. “I’m not giving up,” she told the News. “They want us to believe there is no fighting the largest corporation that’s ever existed.” The group she has formed is called Tehachapi First, which means the homeowners and the taxpayers of Tehachapi come first, and the out-of-state corporations come last.
Sprawl-Busters reported on July 5, 2010 that consultants hired by the city of Tehachapi had warned the city that if a 165,000 sf. Wal-Mart superstore was built, there would be a downside to the retail sector. According to the Draft Environmental Impact Report (DEIR), which is almost 600 pages long, a new Wal-Mart will kill off one of the city’s two existing grocery stores, and likely force the existing Kmart to go out of business. The proposed store has 34,293 s.f. of grocery space, and this could have a severe impact on either the existing Albertson’s or Save Mart. “The Wal-Mart grocery component will potentially cause one of the existing supermarkets in Tehachapi to close,” the consultants concluded.
“Given the relatively modest growth in citywide grocery demand over the next several years,” the DEIR said, “only a small portion of Wal-Mart’s grocery sales would be supported by incremental demand. The vast majority of Wal-Mart’s grocery sales would be diverted from existing supermarkets in the City… the proposed project could potentially cause one of the existing supermarkets in Tehachapi to close, given that the combined sales volumes of the two existing supermarkets would fall 35 percent from the existing level with the entry of the Wal-Mart store in 2011.”
In June of 2011, Tehachapi First issued a press release stating that the City Council vote to support Wal-Mart was being appealed. According to Tehachapi First, “The case, filed in Kern County Superior Court, claims the Tehachapi City Council violated several provisions of the California Enviromental Quality Act (CEQA) by failing to perform a thorough evaluation of the project’s numerous and very serious environmental impacts.
“The environmental impact report the City Council prepared for Wal-Mart’s megastore completely whitewashed over the serious traffic, air pollution, urban decay, and noise problems it will inflict on our community,” said Shannon Turner. “We are confident that the court will agree that the city’s analysis was utterly deficient and both the city and Wal-Mart need to do more to minimize or avoid the project’s environmental consequences, which the evidence shows are substantial.”
Eleven months later, Shannon Turner was proved right. “We won,” she wrote Sprawl-Busters. “I know Wal-Mart will not go away easy, but for now, we held them back.” According to Turner, “CEQA laws regarding water, noise, and traffic saved us for now. We successfully showed that mistakes in the EIR regarding these issues were made, overlooked or disregarded. I suspect we will be fighting this again another day, but for now, we won.”
The Tehachapi News reports that to move forward now, city officials will have to file a new environmental report, because Kern County Superior Court Judge Kenneth Twisselman has ruled that the project’s EIR is inadequate. “Substantial evidence does not support the city’s contention that there was a good-faith effort for full disclosure with a reasoned analysis of environmental consequences” for the project, the judge wrote. At issue were noise, traffic and water supply concerns.
“We raised three fundamental issues about the EIR,” John Farrow, attorney for Tehachapi First, told the Tehachapi News. “We said the traffic analysis failed to disclose all of the significant impacts, we said the water analysis was limited in scope and we said the noise was fundamentally flawed. The judge upheld all of those.”
The Wal-Mart battle in Tehachapi is not over — but residents have shown that standing up to City Hall and big developers is not a futile effort.
Readers are urged to email the Mayor of Tehachapi, Ed Grimes, at: [email protected] or call (661) 822-2200 with this message:
“Dear Mayor Grimes,
The citizens in Tehachapi First have given you a second chance to decide the fate of the Wal-Mart superstore project.
You have said that ‘Tehachapi is going to grow whether we like it or not. My focus is to see that growth continue in a responsible way.’ For month, many of your constituents have told you that Tehachapi does not need a Wal-Mart superstore — especially one that is 165,000 s.f. Now a Judge has told you that your review of the proposed Wal-Marti is flawed. It’s time for the city to sit down with project opponents and come up with a plan that is more appropriate for your city.
As your own DEIR demonstrated, you will lose almost as much square footage of retail space as you will gain, and the net impact of jobs will be almost negligible. Instead, you will be expanding the suburban sprawl model of a single story box with a massive parking apron around it. This does not fit the character of Tehachapi, and will only draw foot traffic away from your historic downtown.
As Mayor, you should now tell the developer that Tehachapi will not support inappropriately scaled superstores anymore, and that a neighborhood scale store is more along the lines of what the residents of your city want and need.”
Once again, local citizens have demonstrated that you can fight Wal-Mart—and win.