At a Planning Commissioner’s hearing in Rohnert Park, California in late April, 2010, Wal-Mart couldn’t scrape up one vote in support of super-sizing its current discount store in Rohnert Park.
According to the Sonoma State Star newspaper, Wal-Mart got whiffed 4-0 by the Planning Commissioners, who cited the project’s environmental impact report as the reason to reject the expansion. The giant retailer wanted to add 32,000 s.f. to its discount store by adding a grocery component.
A large crowd filled the city council chambers, as members of the public raised concerns about traffic congestion, about impact on existing grocers like Pacific Market, and the loss of local jobs. Other opponents focused on the wisdom of buying local, reducing green house gas emissions, and supporting local agriculture. A major concern was the traffic congestion that a larger store would generate — an outcome that even Wal-Mart admitted was unacceptable — the State Star said.
An economic impact report paid for by Pacific Market, and conducted by Sonoma State College’s Center for Regional Economic Analysis, concluded that the Wal-Mart expansion would lead to a net loss of 105 to 211 jobs. A Wal-Mart spokesman insisted that the store expansion would “create” 85 new jobs.
After the Planning Commission vote a spokeswoman for Wal-Mart told the Santa Rosa Press Democrat that the result was “a great disappointment” to Wal-Mart. Opponents of the project said at the time that Wal-Mart would appeal the Planning Commission decision to the Rohnert Park City Council. The Chair of the Commissioners, John Gorba, told the crowd that the large turnout of the public was “a great lesson in democracy.”
But the democracy lesson wasn’t over. Wal-Mart appealed the Planning Commission vote, and on July 31, 2010, Sprawl-Busters reported that the Rohnert Park City Council reversed the unanimous vote of their own Planning Commission, and gave Wal-Mart a green light to expand.
The City Council slammed the vote of their Planning Commission. “The Planning Commission didn’t do their job, and shame on them,” Councilman Joe Callinan told the large crowd of several hundred people at the evening hearing.
In a 4-1 vote, the City Council said the superstore’s benefits outweighed its negative impacts. Even though the city’s General Plan says that grocery stores should be located near to shoppers, the Council saw no inconsistency.
One City Councilor even suggested that to stop Wal-Mart would be unpatriotic. “We need to uphold the law, we need to apply the law and we need to allow this project to move forward. I believe that not to do so would be un-American,” said Councilwoman Amie Breeze. After the vote, the Planning Commission chairman told the media, “I think they made the wrong decision.”
This week, the Rohnert Park Wal-Mart expansion was back in the headlines. Just as Wal-Mart appealed to the City Council, now it was environmental groups which appealed the City Council’s vote to Sonoma County Superior Court.
The Sierra Club and Sonoma County Conservation Action (SCCA), charged in their complaint that Rohnert Park officials violated the city’s general plan and should have denied the project’s environmental impact report.
A Wal-Mart spokesman said the environmental appeal was “unfortunate.” The spokesman added, “The project meets all requirements by the city and we’ve done everything that’s legally required of us.” To ease the city’s anxiety, Wal-Mart has agreed to pay for the city’s legal fees resulting from the legal action.
The two environmental groups point out that the city’s General Plan says that supermarkets should be “close to where people live,” and that the Plan is legally binding on the town. They also say that the environmental impacts from the expansion of the existing store outweigh any environmental benefits.
A spokesman for the SCCA told the Press Democrat, “We felt that the Planning Commission was on the right track when they denied the project. We just feel that the City Council did not do the citizenry justice. So we’re going to take it to the courts and see if they agree with us, we feel pretty confident that we feel our case is strong.”
The attorneys for the environmental group are being provided by the California Healthy Communities Network, a community organizing group that has been opposing the store. A spokesman for the Network, Phil Tucker, told the newspaper, “Many of these big box stores are intruding into areas that are very fragile. We’re very, very concerned about general plans, urban sprawl, and also about things that can weigh on creating blight, urban decay.”
Opponents have pledged to continue this battle in Rohnert Park. “We have not seen the end of this by any means,” said Marty Bennett, co-chairman of the Living Wage Coalition, one of the groups opposing the project.
Wal-Mart lost a similar court challenge by opponents in the Roseland neighborhood of nearby Santa Rosa, California. On August 29, 2008, the court agreed with anti-Wal-Mart residents that the environmental review done for the southwest Santa Rosa location was flawed. The lawsuit was brought by five Santa Rosa residents in 2007, seeking to overturn the 2006 approval of the Wal-Mart in the Roseland neighborhood of the city.
During the hearings on the Roseland project, residents criticized Wal-Mart’s “predatory business and labor practices,” its low pay and employee benefits, and its impact on other businesses in Santa Rosa. Judge Robert Boyd said the study of parking and noise from the project were “especially problematic.” That Santa Rosa defeat cost Wal-Mart five years of delay before the project was scrubbed.
So a Rohnert Park lawsuit has Wal-Mart nervous. “It will be very unfortunate if special interests did delay the process even further,” a spokesman for the retailer warned last July. “They’ve planned for economic development in Rohnert Park, and they want the project to move forward as quickly as possible.”
Wal-Mart has directed its future growth plans to converting its existing discount stores into larger supercenters. Most big box projects today are being opposed by local residents, and this opposition can be very costly to developers and chain stores.
What might be a three month permitting process can devolve into a three year battle, if citizens decide to challenge the big developers. As in the Rohnert Park case, the City Council’s vote overturning its Planning Commission has led to a courtroom, not a ribbon-cutting.
In the Sprawl-Buster’s blog on July 31, 2010 on this battle, it was stated that “Rohnert Park Mayor Pam Stafford voted for the expansion, claiming that the addition of a grocery component to Wal-Mart would help the local economy, but offered no economic evidence to back up her theory.” The local newspaper stated that the Mayor had opined on this subject.
On August 2, 2010, Mayor Stafford wrote to Sprawl-Busters: “I did not ever mention the economic benefits of the project, therefore I did not need to back up an assertion because it was never made. The reasons that I stated in my opinion were based on the law and our legal council’s interpretation of our General Plan and zoning code.”
However, Mayor Stafford did vote for the expansion, and did voted against the recommendations of her Planning Commission.
Readers are urged to email Rohnert Park Mayor Pam Stafford at [email protected] with the following message:
“Dear Mayor Stafford,
Your vote for Wal-Mart expansion was regrettable. You say you voted for Wal-Mart because of the “interpretation” of your General Plan by the city’s lawyer.
Something is wrong when a City Council ignores its own General Plan, and the unanimous vote of its Planning Commission. The Redwood Drive Wal-Mart doesn’t need to be expanded. The fact is, Wal-Mart could remodel its interior floor area to do what it wants to do, without adding a single square foot to its building.
This expansion just wastes more land, and could result in a net loss of jobs, according to the Center for Regional Economic Analysis study. This is not economic development, but economic displacement.
You say you never said this project would be an economic benefit. The consultant Retail Forward concluded in a 2003 study that for every one Wal-Mart superstore that opens, two local grocery stores will close. Your city will witness a net job loss, and in return get traffic congestion that costs more money to fix, more police reports to investigate, more air pollution, and more money leaving the local economy.
Your Planning Commissioners were right to reject this expansion — and no one on the Commission supported it. Members of the City Council expected that this case would be appealed, and don’t be surprised if you have another Roseland decision on your hands. At least the appeal will be on Wal-Mart’s dime. But you should have voted with your own Planning Commission.”