Sometimes the public is excluded from the public process. That’s what happened recently in Delano, California, where local officials are in such a big rush to pass their Wal-Mart project, that they keep running afoul of the law. Almost six years ago, officials in Delano were frustrated that a proposed Wal-Mart in their city had moved across county lines, depriving the city of the revenues they had been desperate to win from the retail project. In 2002, Wal-Mart proposed coming to Delano and opening a store. City officials began counting their profits. But that store never came to Delano, and now, many long years later, a Delano Wal-Mart is still pending. On February 15, 2008, Sprawl-Busters reported that another proposed Wal-Mart project had run into delays in Delano. Wal-Mart’s plans to build a supercenter in Delano, California were tied up in litigation, brought by two local supermarket workers. This city lies about 28 miles north of Bakersfield, along Route 99. The closest Wal-Mart today is in Porterville, some 25 miles away. When Wal-Mart announced it wanted to build a store on County Line Road across the street from Kmart in 2003, their site caused significant controversy, because Delano would have had to share the sales tax revenue from the superstore with the County of Tulare. Six years later, there is no Wal-Mart on County Line Road, and the giant retailer is mired in two lawsuits over the proposed Delano Marketplace. The developer is YK America. The Marketplace sits on 200 acres of land near Highway 99, and will dump more than 1 million s.f. of new retail space into Delano, including Wal-Mart, Lowe’s, Starbucks, Chili’s Restaurant, and other smaller retail shops and restaurants. The project also came with its own consumers: 1,000 units of multi-family housing. (The housing portion of the project was later dropped). Delano’s population has more than doubled since 1990, but whatever sales taxes this new project will bring, will also come with the burden of paying for the police and fire costs of patrolling the Marketplace. The whole project is under the shadow of two lawsuits. A group called Citizens for a Better Delano, and a resident, Barbara Kulukjian, filed a lawsuit against the plan in September of 2007 in Kern County Superior Court. Kulukjian told the Californian newspaper she is not against sales tax, “But I’ve lived in Delano a long time, and I’ve seen the city make errors. And I wanted to make sure that the environmental impact (report) was correctly done.” The developer has stated for the record, “If the (environmental impact report) is found to be deficient, it will be corrected and made adequate. If it’s found (to be) adequate, the lawsuit will be dismissed. It’s just a function of time when it will be built.” But that “function of time” has turned into many months of delay. The developer is using economics to sell the project. They estimate 800 ‘new’ jobs will be created, and $1 million in revenue to the city. That revenue figure has ranged as high as $2.5 million, depending on the developer’s numbers. These numbers are gross figures, not net of retail losses elsewhere in the city as Lowe’s and Wal-Mart force other retailers out of business. The revenues also do not account for the municipal costs of providing the Marketplace with services. The city manager told the newspaper that Delano loses $200 million in sales a year when residents leave Delano to shop in Bakersfield. “This town is dying for quality commercial developers,” the city manager told the Californian. “We believe the developer is capable of constructing the project and getting it going here. We need these lawsuits to be settled or dismissed so we can get going with our project.” On February 6, 2009, a Bakersfield judge heard the lawsuit filed by Citizens for a Better Delano. Two local grocery stores which oppose the Wal-Mart, are hoping the judge rules in their favor. Delano officials told ABC TV News they were “cautiously optimistic.” Delano Mayor Sam Ramirez claims the first phase of the huge project will create 600 ‘new’ jobs. But at the February hearing, the judge refused to allow the project to move forward, and instructed the city to perform another study of the supercenter’s impact on urban decay in communities surrounding Delano, including Wasco and McFarland, California. Kern County Superior Court Judge Kenneth Twissleman said that Delano’s Environmental Impact Report was fine as far as it went — but it needed to be broadened to see larger economic impacts. The city was upbeat about the judge’s ruling, and said it would be easy to perform the larger study — but the judge’s ruling was yet one more delay in Delano. On May 12, 2009, Sprawl-Busters reported that a court decision could be coming within the next two weeks. Delano Mayor Ramirez said that the judge would look over the environmental impact changes and decide if Wal-Mart can continue to build or not. But if Delano officials were hoping the court would give them a green light, they were disappointed this week when the Wal-Mart project was put on hold again. According to Bakersfield Now, Judge Twissleman issued his ruling, saying that the city of Delano failed to properly perform the supplemental Environmental Impact Report. Although the city had done the supplemental report, the judge ruled the city neglected to “circulate” the report for public comment and review. Judge Twissleman ruled that Delano must circulate the supplemental EIR by issuing a public notice and gathering public comments on the report. City officials say the new requirements are likely to set the project back by months.
Delano residents Rick Vasquez and Mike Young, the two retail workers who have sued the city, charge that the city failed to do an adequate Environmental Impact Report and failed to consider how the project would impact urban decay in surrounding communities. These lawsuits have clearly frustrated city officials, who think they have got the golden goose by the neck. Residents in Delano are fully aware that anti-Wal-Mart activists in nearby Bakersfield delayed two Wal-Mart supercenters over the issue of improper environmental studies. The courts actually halted work on the Wal-Marts for an extended period due to citizen appeals. The Citizens for a Better Delano plaintiffs, Young and Vasquez, work at State Market and Save Mart Supermarket, respectively, in Delano. Their lawsuit charges that the city of Delano violated provisions of the California Environmental Quality Act when it approved the center in August 2007, and the judge has essentially agreed with them that impacts on surrounding communities need to be studied. Readers are urged to call the Save Mart Supermaket in Delano, at (661) 725-2733 to congratulate Rick Vasquez for the judge’s ruling, and to encourage them to appeal to a higher court if this case moves forward. Then do the same for State Market, by calling (661) 725-0630 and encouraging Mike Young to continue fighting the big box project. Readers should also email Delano Mayor Sam Ramirez at [email protected] with the following message: “Dear Mayor Ramirez, It’s important to keep the public involved in the public process. I am pleased that Judge Twissleman has ruled against the city. This gives you an opportunity to re-think your claims that this project means hundreds of new jobs. If that were the case, why do you suppose other merchants in Delano are fighting you? Do you find it strange that some of your local businesses know they will lose jobs or be forced to close, if this project is approved? The gross impact of this store is very different than the net impact, and once you add in the increased cost of police and fire protection for this huge project, Delano may wish that you had worked harder to delay this, instead of cheerleading it. You will get more traffic and crime — and your constituents will learn that when you make a mistake with Wal-Mart, it’s a big mistake. Wal-Mart is not the beginning of competition in Delano — it’s the end. You might want to focus on maintaining the merchants you have, rather than simply replacing them. It’s time to sit down with the developer and ask them to come up with a much smaller project that fits into the character and scale of Delano. The courts have handed you another delay — make good use of that delay to come up with a small plan, with reduced environmental and economic impacts.”