Wal-Mart has watched five years slip away in the city of Clovis, California. Instead of a superstore, all the retailer can show its stockholders is a super legal bill. Clovis says its “where California’s bright new future continues to unfold… Here, under the sunny western sky, our peaceful community is well on its way to becoming the state’s next new frontier.” The city has become Wal-Mart’s new frontier, and local residents have been pushing back against big box stores for 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. The city manager of Clovis says that “unchecked growth elsewhere in California has slowed services and lessened the quality of life,” but in Clovis, they have “benefited from observing planning practices that have and haven’t worked in other communities.” The managers boasts, “We are building a community with a commitment to thoughtful design, planned growth and quality services.” 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. Although the developer did not reveal who his tenant was, according to the Independent newspaper, Wal-Mart admitted they were looking to build a supercenter in Clovis. 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, according to the Clovis Independent newspaper. 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 is 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, Kohl’s, Bed Bath & Beyond, Petco, Old Navy and Ross Dress for Less. The Wal-Mart 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 developer told city officials that the Clovis’ population could handle two Wal-Marts. “They did the initial store 10 years ago,” the developer said. “The community has grown and they want to grow with the community.” He said Wal-Mart Supercenters in Dinuba, Hanford and Sanger, California haven’t led to the closing of other businesses. “I think it’s a lot of crying wolf that these things are going to come about,” he was quoted as saying by the Independent. 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, and six months later, the case is now being heard. This week, almost five years since 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 last nearly 6 hours. The Association for Sensible and Informed Planning argued that the city also did properly complete is environmental reviews of the project, or the project’s effect on endangered species. The city never determined if there is enough water for this project, opponents charge. Attorney Steve Herum, who represents 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 — but city officials eventually approved a decay study and work on the Bakersfield stores continued. 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 will be Clovis residents. Opponents also want 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. The court is expected to deliberate several weeks before making a decision on the adequacy of the environmental report.
Mayor Bob Whalen has family roots that go back four generations in Clovis. He was first elected Mayor in 2003 — the same year that Wal-Mart’s supercenter first appeared. Whalen’s family came to Clovis to farm peaches and raise chickens. “So when talk turns to growth and the future of Clovis,” the Mayor says, “I want to make certain we don’t lose sight of the traditions that have helped make Clovis such a great place. I firmly believe that change is not progress if you lose your core.” The Mayor is proud of the Loma Vista “neighborhood village” which “allows for growth, while preserving farmland.” The Mayor is promoting this project for its “pedestrian- and bicycle-friendly pathways,” as a plan that “guarantees our growth will be smart and well thought out.” Yet, this same Mayor is supporting a huge, suburban supercenter that is neither village-friendly, nor smart growth. During hearings on this project, Clovis’ Police Captain asked city council members to limit the superstore’s operating hours to prevent overnight campers, require a uniformed security guard on the shopping center’s premises and demand shopping carts that stop rolling when they are taken from the center. Readers are urged to send an email to Mayor Bob Whalen and the City Council by going to http://user.govoutreach.com/clovis/. Tell the Mayor and Council, “Growth in Clovis may be inevitable, but protect your wide open spaces with smart growth, not Wal-Mart sprawl. Hopefully the court will send this case back to the city council for your to conduct a more thorough environmental review. One Wal-Mart is one more than enough for Clovis, and the proposed supercenter will shut down the existing Wal-Mart. Create neighborhood villages — not superstore sprawl. Regardless of how this court case turns out, it’s time for Clovis to pass a zoning cap on the size of retail stores.”