The Presidential election will be the preoccupation of millions of American voters on November 4th, but residents in one small California community will be focusing on a local vote with big impacts as well. One month from now, voters in Atascadero, California will go to the polls to decide whether or not to place a cap on the size of retail buildings. To prevent the initiative from passing, Wal-Mart is spending money on voter identification, TV ads, and other local organizing. They’ve got a super-size budget to spend on the Atascadero election. Dozens of communities across California and the nation have used a size cap to limit the scale of new development in order to preserve character and quality of life, and to mitigate the adverse effects of traffic and environmental impacts. On December 18, 2007 local residents in Atascadero filed an initiative petition entitled “Taxpayers’ Initiative Ordinance To Reduce Costly Effects Of High Intensity Urban Development By Preserving Atascadero’s Unique Small Town Character.” Measure D-08, called the Atascadero “Shield Initiative”, prohibits commercial buildings in excess of 150,000 s.f., and prevents any store in excess of 90,000 s.f. from having more than 5% of its gross floor area dedicated to nontaxable goods, such as groceries. On the same day that voters take up this ballot question, they will also elect three new members to the Atascadero City Council. On July 7, 2006, Sprawl-Busters reported that the Rottman Group, a developer based in San Luis Obispo, California, announced that it had “concluded negotiations with Wal-Mart to partner in the development” of a project known as The Annex. Rottman said Wal-Mart has purchased 26 acres of land in the project area on the southeast parcel of The Annex. The Rottman Group called Wal-Mart “a strong anchor for the proposed project.” Rottman said at the time, “We recognize that there are many issues surrounding the possible location of a Wal-Mart in Atascadero. We are not ignoring public comment, but are asking residents to give Wal-Mart a chance to introduce itself, correct misconceptions and make a case for why it will benefit Atascadero.” The Rottman Group claimed that The Annex would “bring people to Atascadero — including its downtown.” “We see our proposal as a win-win situation for Atascadero,” the developer said, ” providing shopping choices and significant new retail sales tax to help the city.” To try and fit into the city’s zoning code, Rottman scaled back its store, and on February 4, 2008, Sprawl-Busters reported that Wal-Mart had returned with plans for a 146,507-s.f. store on Del Rio Road — a cut of about 25% in building size. The Atascadero City Council voted 4-1 to accept the supercenter application. Mayor Mike Brennler, along with Councilmen George Luna, Jerry Clay and Tom O’Malley voted in favor of accepting the plan for review. Ellen Beraud voted against it. In June of 2008, the city announced it was spending $100,000 on a retail survey by Applied Development Economics to be mailed to every household in the city, to develop an economic strategy, and the shopping survey is part of that project. At the last election in 2006 in Atascadero, two candidates were elected to the city council who stated their opposition to the Wal-Mart store. The election of Planning Commissioner Ellen Beraud and retired police officer Mike Brennler appeared to cast a shadow over Wal-Mart’s superstore dreams. The citizen’s group Oppose Wal-Mart said that both Beraud and Brennler had pledged that they would vote against a proposed rezoning that must precede any Wal-Mart plans for the city’s north side. “Both candidates are very principled,” Oppose Wal-Mart spokesman Tom Comar told The Tribune newspaper. “They’ve taken a stand, and they’ve made it clear they’re opposed to rezoning. I feel very confident.” These two new Councilors, along with Councilman George Luna, represented the three votes needed to stop rezoning. Several months later, an effort was launched to recall Brennler and Beraud, but the recall effort fizzled. The organizers of the recall, one of whom is a real estate broker, announced that they had halted the process. “We have decided with tremendous soul searching and discussion in the interest in the common good to halt the process of a recall and to focus our energy and resources on the next election,” one recall organizer said in a letter. Local residents told The San Louis Obispo Tribune that they believed Wal-Mart was one of the prime instigators of the recall effort. One community activist said, “While there has been no direct mention of Wal-Mart’s role in or behind the recall effort, it is clear that it is the ‘elephant in the room.'” A pro Wal-Mart group calling themselves Citizens for Atascadero was formed. They supported the recall effort and on a local radio talk show, called for support of Wal-Mart’s applications. Now all eyes are focused on the November 4, 2008 election. There are six candidates squaring off for three empty seats. Two candidates who have been considered leaning anti-Wal-Mart, Mike Brennler and George Luna, are both stepping down. Brennler was one of the recall targets. Both men voted for the smaller Wal-Mart proposal — so their opposition to Wal-Mart has not been consistent throughout. Luna was outspoken against Wal-Mart’s first store, which was significantly over the 150,000 s.f. threshold. Running to replace Brennler and Luna are Jerry Clay, an incumbent Jerry Clay, who is a retired real estate agent; Len Colamarino, an attorney; Roberta Fonzi, another real estate agent and member of the city’s Planning Commission; Bob Kelley, a third real estate broker; Pamela Heatherington, a planning commissioner and former head of the Environmental Center of San Luis Obispo County; and Brett Heinemann, a writer. Clay, the retired real estate agent, says the Wal-Mart project is critical to restoring Atascadero’s economy. Fonzi the real estate agent is strongly in favor of the Wal-Mart project, telling The Tribune, “If the shield initiative is approved and becomes law, our options as a city become limited. If it is defeated, we need to concentrate on developing the Del Rio commercial area as quickly as possible.” Heinemann and Kelley are also opposed to the cap on retail stores. Colamarino says he wants to see Atasacadero rebuild its downtown — yet he says he can support a Wal-Mart supercenter outside of the downtown — which will hurt revitalization efforts downtown. The only candidate to take a clear stand in favor of Measure D-08 is Heatherington. “It keeps our business partners as ‘partners’ in our community,” she told The Tribune. Real estate agents are running for the City Council to help guide the real estate market tilt towards the big chainstore players. Only the voters stand in the way now.
The ugly battle over a retail store for more than two years has brought out bitter divisions within Atascadero. The ballot initiative and the recall effort are emblematic of a tale of two cities. On the one hand are those who believe that national chain stores like Wal-Mart can step in to save the local economy. On the other hand, groups like Oppose Wal-Mart contend that a superstore largely displaces sales at existing merchants, and adds little new value to the economy. They charge that a huge Wal-Mart will also compromise the environment, the character of their community, and increase problems associated with traffic and crime. One thing is clear: Wal-Mart intends to spend big to defeat Measure D-08. On March 3, 2003, Sprawl-Busters wrote about a similar ballot question in Contra Costa County, California. When the county enacted a law similar to the proposed Atascadero size cap, it was Wal-Mart that went to the ballot to stop it. Wal-Mart attacked the county ordinance, paid for signature gatherers to put Measure L on the ballot, and then unleased an estimated $1 million in corporate money to secure its victory. Even with this lavish display of corporate spending, 46% of those who voted in Contra Costa County wanted the size cap. Wal-Mart won the vote — but revealed a very deep split in the county over this issue. If Wal-Mart had not spent a fortune in mailings and advertisements, the result might have been reversed. “It’s a disappointment but not a surprise,” one Contra Costa County Supervisor told the Associated Press after the vote. “We were outspent 2-1. We had a difficult message to get out. Having said that, people are starting to see what the true costs of these Supercenters are.” In San Marcos, California, on the same night as the Contra Costa vote, the residents handed Wal-Mart a huge defeat. The voters passed Proposition G, which reverse the City Council’s rezoning for a Wal-Mart. The vote in Atascadero will be colored by Wal-Mart’s money. The retailer will not have to spend $1 million to defeat Measure D-08, but it is already certain that they will far outspend the group Oppose Wal-Mart. This citizens group is an all volunteer, locally funded, grass-roots organization made up of women and men, young and old, union and non-union, Democrats, Republicans, Greens and Independents from all occupations. Oppose Wal-Mart is continuing to appeal for funds to win their ballot question. “A billion dollar corporation like Wal-Mart,” the groups says, “has millions to sell a supercenter to us, has millions to threaten lawsuits, has millions to launch an offensive to overthrow the General Plan, current zoning of the Annex, and to circumvent normal planning reviews. This is bad development! Wal-Mart bought the land with full knowledge of its limitations, yet arrogantly proceeds with its colossal supercenter proposal… Those of us who oppose Wal-Mart’s plan are in reality the last defense against this type of ‘bad’ development. The citizens of Atascadero can choose good development that consists of a sustainable, diverse, environmental and pedestrian friendly center that supports a vibrant downtown.” Readers are urged to send a contribution immediately to: Oppose Wal-Mart, Box 1524, Atascadero CA 93423. For more background, contact Tom Comar, Spokesperson for Oppose Wal-mart [email protected]