On November 6, 2008, Sprawl-Busters reported that Wal-Mart had ‘bought’ a victory at the polls in Atascadero, California. By using its corporate free speech rights, the retailer had spent a small fortune to turn back a citizens effort to put a cap on the size of retail stores. “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,” said 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 last year in Atascadero. On October 5, 2008, Sprawl-Busters noted that Wal-Mart had spent big money on voter identification, TV ads, and other local organizing. 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”, would have prohibited commercial buildings in excess of 150,000 s.f., and prevented 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. The voters of Atascadero on November 4, 2008 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 could now move forward with a proposed Wal-Mart project — but opponents still had the entire permitting process in which to challenge the superstore’s impact on the city — and then ultimately the courts on appeal. One year ago, Sprawl-Busters predicted that the construction of a Wal-Mart supercenter was far from a done deal in Atascadero. This week, the Tribune newspaper reports that developers of the Wal-Mart superstore still don’t have a permit to build — and are now revising the store’s footprint to make it smaller. City officials met with Wal-Mart this week to review a plan that cuts the store size by nearly 40,000 s.f. Wal-Mart is eliminating the tire and lube center, cutting out the drive-through pharmacy, and lopping off some floor space for merchandise. The store will still include groceries, a company spokesman said. In January of 2009, the Atascadero City Council put out a request for proposals to study the economic impact of this project on the city. But now, with the store size changing, that impact study is on hold. The revised application now totals around 120,000 s.f., compared to the previous 157,000 s.f. plan. When Measure D-08 was being voted on, the supercenter at the time was 146,000 s.f. (to allow it to fit under the 150,000 s.f. cap that already existed for that specific site). But Atascader officials told Wal-Mart after the vote that they wanted the retailer to add back into their plan a drug store and auto center. This week Wal-Mart said those additions were no longer ‘feasible.’ Wal-Mart explained that the submission of a smaller store was not caused by the recession, but by the local site’s configuration. “To do a larger facility and maintain the two parcels included with it would require a significant amount of site work that just doesn’t make sense,” a Wal-Mart representative said. It also avoids having to ask the city to alter the existing limit on buildings at this site of 150,000 s.f. Wal-Mart added, “This project is very much about what is appropriate for the site design. It is about meeting the customer base and filling customer needs. The (environmental) study is the next major phase, and we needed to make sure that before we began that we were comfortable with the overall size of the store.” Wal-Mart’s size shift has further delayed the impact reviews which now must proceed using the new submission.
After the Atascadero vote last year, 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 were pure speculation, since Wal-Mart opponents vowed to continue to battle any big box store that submitted 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 at the time, “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. 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. The city has been frantic over its “slumping” sales tax revenue. “We need additional sales tax and Wal-Mart is offering to bring that,” one local official said. Readers are urged to email Atascadero Mayor Ellen Beraud at: [email protected] with the following message: “Dear Mayor Beraud, It is always a good thing when Wal-Mart comes in with a smaller store. Oppose Wal-Mart continues to raise the serious environmental and traffic issues that surround this project, which is still the wrong size. 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. Now that Wal-Mart has submitted a smaller footprint, it’s time to seriously consider asking them to shrink the store down to a size that will minimize traffic, air pollution, and other environmental impacts. It has taken years to get Wal-Mart to reduce its footprint. The retailer has told Wall Street analysts that it is now comfortable with the idea of building 70,000 s.f. superstores, which are less costly and more efficient for the company to maintain. Keep pressuring them to get more efficient in Atascadero.”