“We took on the 800-pound gorilla, took them to the mat. We ended up at the bottom this time, but there will be very many options for us in this long process before any supercenter will be built here.” That was the assessment this week from Tom Comar, one of the organizers of Opppose Wal-Mart, the group behind the “Yes on Measure D-08” initiative petition that appeared on the ballot Tuesday in Atascadero, California. On October 5, 2008, Sprawl-Busters reported that the Presidential election would be the preoccupation of millions of American voters on November 4th, but residents in Atascdero would be focusing on a local vote with big impacts as well. Voters in Atascadero, California went 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 spent big money on voter identification, TV ads, and other local organizing. The full extent of their super-size spending for the Atascadero election will not be clear until the company files its final campaign finance reports. Usually such reports hold back the major donations report until after the polls have closed, so voters are not aware of just how lopsided the spending has been. 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. According to KSBY TV, the voters on Atascadero on November 4 voted 68% against Measure D, and 32% for it. As many as 12,000 people turned out to vote. A spokesperson for the city of Atascadero said it can now move forward with a proposed Wal-Mart project — but opponents will have the entire permitting project in which to challenge its impact on the city — and then ultimately the courts on appeal. The construction of a Wal-Mart supercenter is far from a done deal in Atascadero.
The media assumes that because Measure D failed, the door is wide open to Wal-Mart. The company must still meet all state and local zoning and environmental laws. One media outlet wrote: “The defeat of the measure will now allow large retail stores like Wal-Mart to soon set up shop in the area. This in turn will bring much-needed revenue to Atascadero in the form of tax money.” Both of these statements are pure speculation, since Wal-Mart opponents will continue to battle any big box store that submits a proposal, and tax revenues from a Wal-Mart will largely be drawn from lost revenues at existing merchants and grocers in the Atascadero trade area. “The environmental process usually takes over a year,” the city’s Communithy Development Director explained, “so then there’ll be hearings and building permits. So we’re still a couple of years away of actually seeing any dirt moving out on the site to build the project.” That timetable assumes no legal action by opponents, which could delay any construction for another year or longer. The city reportedly plans to meet with Wal-Mart representatives sometime this month. While the media reported that Measure D’s defeat “derails a grassroots movement to prevent a Wal-Mart or any other large or warehouse-style store from building within city limits,” it didn’t really do that at all. The opponents remain in Atascadero, and are likely to be in the thick of the permitting process that unfolds in the months ahead. Wal-Mart has an application pending to build a Supercenter at Del Rio Road and El Camino Real. In March, 2008, the City Council voted to process Wal-Mart and The Rottman Group’s applications for a 146,000-s.f. store. The city now has to hire a firm to conduct an environmental review of the proposal, which must meet the requirements of the California Environmental Quality Review Act. Also on Wal-Mart’s side, city voters elected three City Councilors, Roberta Fonzi, Bob Kelley and Councilman Jerry Clay. All three are considered to be supportive of the Wal-Mart superstore. The city has been frantic over its “slumping” sales tax revenue, as the candidates repeated the mantra that Atascadero’s retail sector was in decline. “We need new business,” said Fonzi. “We need additional sales tax and Wal-Mart is offering to bring that.” Readers are urged to email Atascadero City Manager Wade McKinney at: [email protected] with the following message: “Dear Mr. McKinney, The end of the Measure D debate does not herald the start of Wal-Mart superstore construction. Oppose Wal-Mart continues to raise the serious environmental and traffic issues that surround this project, which is the wrong size and the wrong place. Once voters in Atascadero see the enormous amount of money Wal-Mart spent on this ballot question, they will realize that to corporations, democracy is something that’s for sale. I don’t believe that Atascadero should be for sale to the highest bidder. Big box chain stores will never bring you financial prosperity, and the more Atascadero fills up with box stores, the worse your crime and quality of life problems will become. Be careful when you invite cannibals to dinner. All opponents ask is that the city allow a full and fair hearing process for this superstore project, and adherence to all state and local laws.”