Wal-Mart has been ‘water boarded,’ and it must feel like the bureaucracy in California is just an endless form of torture. On November 11, 2007 Sprawl-Busters reported that Wal-Mart’s plan to build a supercenter in Suisun City had gone into a nosedive. The Solano County, California Airport Land Use Commission had ruled that a proposed Wal-Mart supercenter along the flight path of Travis Air Force Base would pose a safety threat to shoppers. By a 5-2 vote, the commission decided that the 230,000 s.f. Wal-Mart, with gas station, was “inconsistent” with the Travis AFB Land Use Compatibility Plan for “safety” reasons. Commission chair John Foster said the county’s assertion that the Wal-Mart project would be within the safety limits allowed by the air base plan was wrong, and said the “risk” to residents was too great to approve the project inside the air base’s “safety buffer zone.” But roughly three months later, on February 12, 2008, Wal-Mart got another chance to fly. In a unanimous decision, the Suisun, California City Council voted to overturn the Solano Airport Land Use Commission, and approve the Wal-Mart Supercenter. Because of concerns about Wal-Mart building stores, and then leaving them, the Council got Wal-Mart to agree to pay the city at least $300,000 to cover the costs of demolishing the building, although the city might find other uses for the structure. The demolition agreement says that if the store closes and goes dark for 36 months, Wal-Mart will demolish the building or give the city payment for demolishing it. “That agreement is designed to ease fears about future blight,” a city official noted. Opponents of the plan, the Suisun Alliance, told the media right after the City Council vote that they were considering litigation against the City Commission, and a recall effort against the five individual members of the Council, including the Mayor. On March 31, 2008, Sprawl-Busters reported that the Suisun Alliance had followed through on their intentions, and had filed a lawsuit against Suisun City, charging that the city violated the California Environmental Quality Act when approving a Wal-Mart Supercenter. The case was heard in Solano County Superior Court by Judge Paul Beeman. The suit claimed the city ignored the CEQA in environmental documents and failed to address, evaluate and mitigate several impacts on the site. While that court case was unfolding, another legal battle grew from a recall effort. According to the News Blaze, citizens from the Save Our Suisun Coalition who were collecting signatures on a recall petition were threatened with arrest by a shopping center owner. The group went to court to end such harassment. The law firm of Mark Merin of Sacramento argued that the community group had a constitutionally protected right of free speech to collect signatures for the recall of Suisun City Mayor Pete Sanchez, and city council members Jane Day and Michael Hudson. Attorney Merin said the citizens had the right to circulate recall petitions and literature. He said banning or restricting peaceful petitioning is “unconstitutionally restrictive.” On January 24, 2009, Sprawl-Busters wrote that the court had ruled in the superstore appeal that the Suisun City Council’s approval of the Wal-Mart project can stand. In a prepared press release after the court decision, city officials wrote: “Solano County Superior Court Judge Paul L. Beeman has issued a final ruling that the City of Suisun City fulfilled every legal obligation when the City Council considered and approved the Walters Road West Project, which is proposed to house a Wal-Mart Supercenter. ‘We are very pleased to have this litigation behind us, and look forward to this project’s moving forward,’ said City Manager Suzanne Bragdon. ‘We are very pleased that Judge Beeman’s review of this case supports the diligent work by our staff and consultants to comply with every state and local regulation, including 1,600 pages of analysis.” But this week the Suisun Wal-Mart got water boarded — literally. The State of California Water Resources Control Board says it has problems with the Wal-Mart plan. According to Save Our Suisun, the Water Control Board notified Wal-Mart and the city three times that their application was unacceptable and that Wal-Mart and the city both knew the land that was purchased by the store in 2006 was protected delta wetlands and was conditional. “The State Water Board read the same Environment Impact Report that we did and they also found the environment documents deficient and lacking in detail sufficient to protect the delta wetlands and its water quality,” SOS said in a press release. “They bought that property knowing the obstacles.” According to The Reporter newspaper, the Water Board says it is unclear how the Wal-Mart came up with the ideal size of the store and how it will meet the unmet needs of the area. “The ball is in Wal-Mart’s court,” a spokesman for Save Our Suisun said. In a letter dated March 12th, the State Water Board staff listed a litany of problems, and said the project won’t receive certification until a revised Analysis and Mitigation Plan proposal is submitted.
The Water Resources Control Board wants Wal-Mart to address why this superstore has to be 227,000 s.f. — or if the company needs this new store at all, given the fact that there are seven Wal-Marts within 20 miles of Suisun, including two within 5-6 miles. Wal-Mart has to demonstrate the Least Environmentally Damaging Practicable Alternative (LEDPA) because the current plan the retailer submitted did not appropriately consider off or on-site alternatives, or demonstrate that the proposed Project meets the LEDPA requirement, including store size, location restraints, parking, mitigation evaluations, and the practicability of the entire proposed project. Staff at the Water Board said the proposal lacks “effective pollution control measures.” The Board estimates that mitigation for the degradation to the environment, even if available, could cost Wal-Mart upwards of $175,000 per acre. The Water Board controversy comes after the delay caused by the SOS lawsuit, which threw Wal-Mart’s plans behind by a year. Save Our Suisun (SOS) says the city council members risked the public safety by approving the Wal-Mart SuperCenter near Travis Air Base over the objections of public safety experts, including the County Airport Land Use Commission, and CalTRANS. On their website, the group charges that Suisun City invested $192,000 worth of improvements into the Walters Road (now the Wal-Mart) property. The group says the Wal-Mart will generate 77,000 new cars and trucks/week on Route 12 from supercenter traffic. Millions in road improvements will be necessary to handle the new traffic — but there is no funding in place. “Suisun City Council has shown a willful disregard for the safety of Suisun’s eastern neighborhoods by voting to approve the Wal-Mart Super Center at Walters Road,” the group notes. The Wal-Mart project will also lead to a rise in demands on police and fire services – 24 hour store operations will have a major impact on police and fire services, yet the city claims these services will not be impacted. Declining property values also will be a problem. Homeowners within a 1 mile radius of the super center could see a 15 — 20% devaluation in the assessed property values of their homes due to traffic, flooding, and crime impacts from the super center project. Many Suisun homes have already fallen in value by $100,000 to $200,000 due to the current plummeting real estate market and recession. The Walters Road Super Center will seriously contribute to the problem of flooding in Lawler Ranch. Wal-Mart’s own study raised serious concerns about the ability of Lawler Ranch’s aging drainage system to handle the added storm water runoff from 21 acres of new pavement and the stream channel that runs through the property, which will be filled. SOS pointed out that the California’s State Water Board objected to the super center design, and it refused to approve the permit for the super center.”Suisun City Council has chosen to disregard the safety and fiscal problems that the Walters Road Super Center will create,” SOS says, “in an ill conceived grab for illusory sales tax revenue.” Readers are urged to send an email to the Chairman of the State Water Resources Control Board, Charlie Hoppin, at [email protected] with the following message: “Dear Chairman Hoppin, I was pleased to hear that the Water Resources Control Board is not going to let Wal-Mart walk on water in Suisun City. The superstore project that has been proposed in Suisun adds no value economically to the city or the region, because the area is already saturated with stores. A facility the size of four football fields — not counting the parking lot — is excessive in scale, and many of its adverse impacts come from its size. A much smaller facility would be the least environmentally damaging plan, and a reasonable alternative to the project as proposed. To Wal-Mart, your Board’s involvement may seem like ‘water-boarding’ torture — but the consequences of officials doing nothing to stand in the way of this enormous mistake, would be a worse form of punishment for the citizens of Suisun, who have been fighting this project since the start. I urge the Board to continue to treat Wal-Mart like any other applicant, and to deny any special deals that would compromise the environment and protected water resources.”