This week, a voter initiative petition designed to prevent big box stores in Atascadero, California gathered the necessary 1,511 signatures to be presented to the city council. On June 24th, the City Council could vote to adopt the initiative as part of the city’s ordinance, or they could vote to put the measure on the November 4, 2008 ballot. The council could also ask for a study to examine the impact of the measure, before taking any further action. Since July 6, 2006, Sprawl-Busters has written 9 articles about Atascadero, California’s battle against a Wal-Mart supercenter. For two years, Wal-Mart has generated nothing but controversy. On October 30, 2007, Sprawl-Busters reported that the City Council in Atascadero had voted 4-1 to require city staff to stop processing a Wal-Mart proposal for a 195,000 s.f. store on Del Rio Road. Then-Mayor George Luna said at the time that continuing the review process would only prolong the inevitable defeat of the proposal. “I don’t see the reason for getting more information on a store I would never vote for,” the Mayor told the media. The city’s General Plan has a limit of 150,000 s.f. for big box stores — but the zoning ordinance has no such limit. On December 18, 2007 local residents 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.” According to the group Oppose Wal-Mart, the Measure will ask the voters to amend the Atascadero Zoning Ordinances to approve a maximum limitation (cap) of 150,000 s.f. on the size of any single big box commercial structure and prohibit discount superstores in all zoning districts of the city. On February 4, 2008, we 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. Wal-Mart dropped the automotive maintenance center and drive-through pharmacy from its plan. “The council said they could support a project under 150,000 s.f., and we’re asking the City Council to hold true to their word,” a Wal-Mart spokesman told the San Luis Obispo Tribune. “All you are doing is accepting an application,” Wal-Mart told the Council. The Council accepted the proposal for review in March of 2008, and Wal-Mart began the environmental review process mandated by the California Environmental Quality Review Act (CEQA). Opponents pointed out that Wal-Mart brings no added value to the Atascadero economy, because most of its sales will come from existing merchants. Tom Comar, a co-founder of the group Oppose Wal-Mart, said the “smaller” store, which is about the size of 3 football fields — not counting the parking lot — is still out of scale for the community. “Wal-Mart knows what the requirements of the General Plan and zoning are,” he told the Council. “Yet it insists upon going forward with a plan that is out of scale.” Current Mayor Mike Brennler, along with Councilmen George Luna, Jerry Clay and Tom O’Malley voted in favor of accepting the plan for review. Mayor Pro Tem Ellen Beraud voted against it. This month, 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.
Oppose Wal-Mart says the purposes and intent of the ballot initiative are to: guarantee the right of Atascadero’s citizens to determine Atascadero’s future growth and quality of life; preserve and better implement the overall intention and Smart Growth Principles of the 2025 General Plan; ensure the long-term economic viability of existing commercial plazas; prevent concentration of traffic and associated air quality impacts; ensure the region’s welfare and prevent the adverse impacts of L.A. style urbanization.” The group notes that the County and all major cities on the Central Coast already ban discount superstores and many have size caps. The petition will “shield the City and citizens from the negative impacts superstores are anticipated to have, such as, cannibalization of existing businesses and their sales tax revenue, jobs, and small-town character, higher taxes and utility rates to subsidize growth, increased air, water, noise and light pollution, crowding, congestion and increased crime, and inadequacy of city services.” The ordinance itself says that “Big box commercial structures shall be prohibited in all zoning districts in the city,” and defines “big box commercial structures” as “an individual retail commercial establishment with 150,000 square feet of gross floor area. The ‘gross floor area,’ of such a store includes outdoor storage areas, any outdoor area providing services, such as, but not limited to, outdoor merchandising display, garden supplies, plant display, snack bars, etc. ‘Gross floor area,’ however, does not include loading area. For the purpose of determining the applicability of the 150,000 s.f. maximum, the aggregate square footage of all adjacent stores within 300 yards which may share either a series of checkout stands, management areas, storage area, common entrances, or a controlling ownership interest, shall be considered a single commercial establishment (for example, a plant nursery associated with a general merchandise store or home improvement store, or a discount department store associated with a grocery store).” The proposed ordinance also prohibits “Discount Superstores” in all zoning districts within the city, which is defined as “a retail discount store in excess of 90,000 square feet with at least 5% of gross floor area dedicated to non-taxable goods such as groceries. Wholesale clubs or other establishments selling primarily bulk merchandise and charging membership dues or otherwise restricting sales to customers paying a periodic assessment or fee shall be excluded from this definition.” Oppose Wal-Mart undertook this effort knowing that Wal-Mart spends as much as half a million dollars of corporate money to oppose such initiatives. A spokesman for the developer told the San Luis Obispo Tribune, “It’s disappointing to see a special interest like Oppose Wal-Mart continue not to trust the process or allow the city to make informed decisions on our project. This is nothing more than a big-box ordinance to keep Wal-Mart out of town.” A Wal-Mart spokesman said the initiative was not in the best interests of the city. Readers are urged to send one email to all the members of the Atascadero City Council (George Luna at [email protected]; Mayor Mike Brennler at [email protected]; Mayor Pro Tem Ellen Beraud at [email protected]; Jerry Clay, Sr. at [email protected]; and Tom O’Malley at [email protected]) with the following message: “Dear Members of the Atascadero City Council: Your city boasts of its ‘blend of natural beauty and rural lifestyle’ and its ‘oak-studded hills, creeks, and scenic vistas.’ A suburban sprawl supercenter does not fit into that picture. Regardless of whether Wal-Mart is 195,000 or 146,000 square feet — either size store will have a major impact on the character of the surrounding area, and is incompatible with the ‘rural lifestyle’ you brag about. I urge the Council to accept the Shield Initiative at your June 24th meeting as a new city ordinance. It’s time to make your zoning ordinance compatible with your General Plan.”