How big is too big? The voters in Ventura, California will get the chance to answer that question. On January 31, 2008, Sprawl-Busters reported that citizens in Ventura had waited for months for their elected officials to clamp down on superstore development. Now they are going to take that issue directly to the voters to get what they want. A coalition of citizen and labor groups announced on January 30th that they were filing a ballot initiative to ban any grocery stores larger than 90,000 s.f. They held a press conference in front of the empty Kmart store that Wal-Mart wants to tear down and replace with a supercenter. “It’s our city. It’s our choice,” a spokesman for Livable Ventura, one of the groups backing the initiative, told the Ventura County Star. “The voice of the people is going to decide this issue.” Just by filing the ballot question, the group will block any superstore project that is submitted during the next sixteen months, because the ballot measure, which was originally expected to appear on the November 4, 2008 ballot, now may not appear until November of 2009. To get on the ballot, the groups had to collect more than 8,900 signatures by May 16th. That’s roughly 15% of the registered voters in Ventura. When Wal-Mart takes issues to the ballot, it hires signature gatherers. Livable Ventura relied on door to door volunteers. The groups will also have to expect to be seriously outspent during the run-up to the election. Wal-Mart has been known to spend $250,000 to $500,000 on a single ballot question. The initiative as drafted would define a “superstore” as any building in excess of 90,000 s.f. that devotes more than 3% of the sales floor to nontaxable grocery items. Wal-Mart superstores typically devote 40% or more of their floorspace to groceries. “It doesn’t ban a Target, or a Best Buy or J.C. Penney,” a spokesman for the coalition of groups told the newspaper. Wal-Mart’s reaction to the announcement of a ballot initiative was not surprising. “We’re disappointed in their decision to pursue further ways to keep us out of the community.” This week, the Ventura County Star reports that organizers have reached their signature goal. But Livable Ventura says they want to avoid a special election to save city taxpayers the expense of a special election. “We were told a special election could be as much as $400,000 and we thought, Whoa, that’s not good government,'” said Ed Lacey, a local attorney representing Livable Ventura. “We don’t want to put the city and taxpayers in that spot.” More than 10,000 signatures were collected, but there are always a number of names that end up being disqualified because they don’t appear on the city clerk’s official voter’s list. The next regular election would be in November of 2009. The group only needed to collect less than 6,000 signatures to put the question on a regular ballot — but they gathered more than the 15% of voters to put it on a special ballot. The city estimated that a special election could cost $300,000. Wal-Mart responded to Livable Ventura’s announcement by saying it was “disappointed” because the retailers’other stores in the county had more than 4 million visitors last year. The groups backing the ballot question said that waiting until the 2009 election will give supporters the time they need to raise funds to counter Wal-Mart’s money — which is expected to flow liberally out of Bentonville, Arkansas. As of this week, Wal-Mart has not filed any application to replace the Kmart building with the city.
Last January, Ventura’s City Manager wrote that the city council’s 6-1 vote to limit any single store to 100,000 total s.f. would apply to any retailer. “But it is the possibility that Wal-Mart might replace the K-Mart that evokes passion on both sides of the issue,” he admitted. “The city’s 2005 General Plan clearly called for eliminating ‘big box,’ mega block auto-oriented strip developed and the traffic patterns it generates,” the city manager wrote. “By breaking large parcels into blocks no bigger than 300′ by 300′, the proposed Victoria code already limits the coverage of a building, but the 100,000 cap seeks to keep out the ‘biggest’ of the ‘big boxes’ on an already congested street. Of course, Wal-Mart has the option of simply reoccupying the soon-to-be-vacant K-Mart building or conform to the new proposed rules on building design and overall size.” Wal-Mart will not simply recycle the Kmart store — they want to tear it down and build a bigger footprint. A wide range of community groups were involved in the signature gathering in Ventura to prevent this from happening. The Tri-Counties Labor Foundation, United Food and Commercial Workers, the Stop Ventura Wal-Mart Coalition, Livable Ventura, Ventura County Working People’s Alliance and the Central Coast Alliance United for a Sustainable Economy, all went door-to-door to reach the petition’s goal. It’s been seven months of work since the Ventura city council voted last January to allow multi-story superstores to 100,000 s.f. The voter’s initiative would lower that limit to 90,000 s.f. If a retailer chose to re-use an existing building, it could face added conditions if the project lowered wages, increased the pressure for affordable housing, added traffic, or negatively impacted other businesses. Wal-Mart has a 99,000 s.f. superstore model, which would be larger than the empty Kmart it would replace. Opposition to a store that big has been very vocal in Ventura. One Ventura resident summed up the feeling of many city residents when she told the newspaper, “If it’s between a vacant store and Wal-Mart, vacant is good with me. I don’t like Wal-Mart. I don’t like what they have done to other towns.” To help the work of the Stop Wal-Mart Coalition, contact CAUSE, 2021 Sperry #18, Ventura 93003, (805) 658-0810. More background, and a copy of the original voter petition can be found at http://www.stopwalmartventura.com. Readers are urged to contact Ventura Mayor Christy Weir and the city council at (805) 654-7827, or email them at [email protected] Tell them: “Now that your constituents have gathered enough signatures to put on the ballot a question to lower the size of retail buildings in Venture, it’s time for the City Council to amend the municipal code to make the change called for in the petition. You don’t need to wait until November of 2009. Take a vote now to lower the cap on retail buildings to 90,000 s.f. The Council should be proactive and lower the cap without further prodding by the voters. Wal-Mart has not filed a plan yet, and has no right to a larger building. The city is acting within its legal powers — and consistent with your General Plan — to enact the voter initiative now.”