On May 10, 2009, Sprawl-Busters reported that a newspaper poll in Rohnert Park, California indicated that the public is losing enthusiasm for big box stores.
The Santa Rosa Press Democrat reported that its readers were “generally opposed to many of the pending big-box plans in Sonoma County, including a proposed Lowe’s in Santa Rosa and a Wal-Mart expansion in Rohnert Park.”
54% of readers opposed a plan by Wal-Mart to expand its Rohnert Park store on Redwood Drive by 32,000 s.f., and another 12% were unsure. Only 34% supported Wal-Mart’s expansion plans. “Please, we do not need an expanded Wal-Mart in Rohnert Park,” wrote a Rohnert Park resident. “I never go to that store.”
68% of those who took the survey said they were willing to pay more for an item if they knew they were supporting a locally owned business. 56% said they “frequently” or “always” made their shopping decisions based on whether the store is locally owned. “For every dollar spent, only 15 cents are recirculated locally when a purchase is made at a national chain,” wrote a resident of Windsor, California. “Forty-five cents are recirculated when that same dollar is spent at a locally owned chain. National chains rob us of economic sustainability.”
At a Planning Commissioner’s hearing in late April, Wal-Mart couldn’t scrape up one vote in support of super-sizing its current discount store in Rohnert Park.
According to the Sonoma State Star newspaper, Wal-Mart got whiffed 4-0 by the Planning Commissioners, who cited the project’s environmental impact report as the reason to reject the expansion.
A large crowd filled the city council chambers, as members of the public raised concerns about traffic congestion, about impact on existing grocers like Pacific Market, and the loss of local jobs. Other opponents focused on the wisdom of buying local, reducing green house gas emissions, and supporting local agriculture. A major concern was the traffic congestion that a larger store would generate — an outcome that even Wal-Mart admitted was unacceptable, the State Star said.
An economic impact report paid for by Pacific Market, and conducted by Sonoma State College’s Center for Regional Economic Analysis, concluded that the Wal-Mart expansion would lead to a net loss of 105 to 211 jobs. A Wal-Mart spokesman insisted that the store expansion would “create” 85 new jobs.
After the Planning Commission vote a spokeswoman for Wal-Mart told the Press Democrat that the result was “a great disappointment” to Wal-Mart. Opponents of the project said at the time that Wal-Mart would appeal the Planning Commission decision to the Rohnert Park City Council. The Chair of the Commissioners, John Gorba, told the crowd that the large turnout of the public was “a great lesson in democracy.”
But the democracy lesson wasn’t over. Wal-Mart did appeal the Planning Commission vote, and this week, two months later, the Rohnert Park City Council reversed the unanimous vote of their own Planning Commission, and gave Wal-Mart a green light to expand.
On June 29, 2010, the City Council slammed the vote of the Planning Commission. “The Planning Commission didn’t do their job, and shame on them,” Councilman Joe Callinan told the large crowd of several hundred people at the evening hearing.
In a 4-1 vote, the City Council said the superstore’s benefits outweighed its negative impacts. Even though the city’s general plan says that grocery stores should be located near to shoppers, the Council saw no inconsistency.
One City Councilor even suggested that to stop Wal-Mart would be unpatriotic. “We need to uphold the law, we need to apply the law and we need to allow this project to move forward. I believe that not to do so would be un-American,” said Councilwoman Amie Breeze.
Rohnert Park Mayor Pam Stafford voted for the expansion, claiming that the addition of a grocery component to Wal-Mart would help the local economy, but offered no economic evidence to back up her theory.
After the vote, the Planning Commission chairman told the media, “I think they made the wrong decision.”
The ‘lesson in democracy is still not over. Opponents have pledged to continue the battle. “We have not seen the end of this by any means,” said Marty Bennett, co-chairman of the Living Wage Coalition, one of the groups opposing the project.
Wal-Mart lost a court challenge by opponents in the Roseland neighborhood of nearby Santa Rosa, California. On August 29, 2008, the court agreed with anti-Wal-Mart residents that the environmental review done for the southwest Santa Rosa location was flawed. The lawsuit was brought by five Santa Rosa residents in 2007, seeking to overturn the 2006 approval of the Wal-Mart in the Roseland neighborhood of the city.
During the hearings on the Roseland project, residents criticized Wal-Mart’s “predatory business and labor practices,” its low pay and employee benefits, and its impact on other businesses in Santa Rosa. Judge Robert Boyd said the study of parking and noise from the project were “especially problematic.” That Santa Rosa defeat cost Wal-Mart five years of delay before the project was scrubbed.
So a Rohnert Park lawsuit has Wal-Mart nervous. “It will be very unfortunate if special interests did delay the process even further,” a spokesman for the retailer said. “They’ve planned for economic development in Rohnert Park, and they want the project to move forward as quickly as possible.”
Wal-Mart has directed its future growth plans to converting its existing discount stores into larger supercenters, or, more recently, doing “in-box conversions,” in which the store’s interior is shifted from a discount store to a supercenter — without adding a single square foot in size.
Most big box projects today are being opposed by local residents, and this opposition can be very costly to developers and chain stores. What might be a three month permitting process can devolve into a three year battle, if citizens decide to challenge the big developers. As in the Rohnert Park case, the City Council’s vote overturning its Planning Commission has led to a courtroom, not a ribbon-cutting.
Readers are urged to email Rohnert Park Mayor Pam Stafford at [email protected] with the following message:
“Dear Mayor Stafford, Your vote for Wal-Mart expansion was regrettable, and the implication by Councilor Breeze that trying to stop a Wal-Mart was ‘un-American’ is truly over the top.
Something is wrong when a City Council ignores its own General Plan, and the unanimous vote of its Planning Commission. The Redwood Drive Wal-Mart doesn’t need to be expanded. The fact is, Wal-Mart could remodel its interior floor area to do what it wants to do, without adding a single square foot to its building.
This expansion just wastes more land, and could result in a net loss of jobs, according to the Center for Regional Economic Analysis study. This is not economic development, but economic displacement.
Your statement that adding a grocery story to Wal-Mart would help the local economy is absolutely unfounded. The consultant Retail Forward concluded in a 2003 study that for every one Wal-Mart superstore that opens, two local grocery stores will close. The city will witness a net job loss, and in return get traffic congestion that costs more money to fix, more police reports to investigate, more air pollution, and more money leaving the local economy.
Your Planning Commissioners were right to reject this expansion — and no one on the Commission supported it. You can expect to see this issue in court — and don’t be surprised if you have another Roseland decision on your watch.
When the appeal is filed, remember that Wal-Mart should be required to pay for all legal costs of defending its permits. The city should not be required to spend one dime to defend this project. Let Wal-Mart assume the legal costs — this is their permit that is beging challenged.”