Wal-Mart never seems to know when it’s holding a losing hand. On March 7, 2008, Sprawl-Busters reported that Wal-Mart had lost a high stakes bet in a small California city. A court ruling forced their hand. Red Bluff, California is a community of just over 14,000 people. The city’s mission says: “To sustain consistency, growth and a high quality of life in our community, we are committed to long-range planning, effective management of resources and openness toward innovative ideas.” Apparently city officials consider a Wal-Mart supercenter to be an innovative idea — but local residents did not agree. A court stepped in put its cards on the table. According to the Red Bluff Daily News, a Tehama County judge last March ruled against the city of Red Bluff in a lawsuit that will delay the building of a 198,785 s.f. Wal-Mart Supercenter. This was a setback for Wal-Mart, which has been trying to bluff its way past Red Bluff officials since the fall of 2003. That’s when Wal-Mart filed its site plan. It took the city until June of 2005 to complete its Environmental Impact Report, as required by the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA). The EIR was approved in November of 2006, but the following month, a resident’s group called “Citizens for a Healthy Community” filed a lawsuit on charges that the EIR failed to meet CEQA standards. The CHC lawsuit charged that the number of parking spaces was 34 spaces too small, the level of noise was unacceptable, and there was a real threat of urban decay because the new supercenter was going to leave the city’s current Wal-Mart empty. The lawsuit charged that lack of adequate parking would lead to other traffic problems. “Specifically, individuals who are unable to find an on-site parking space will be forced to leave the site and search for parking either on surrounding streets or in the parking lots of nearby businesses,” said a traffic engineer, Neil Liddicoat, hired by the residents. County Judge John Garaventa said the city also failed to measure the effect of nighttime deliveries on sleep. The lawsuit claimed that Wal-Mart would receive 7 deliveries at night between 10 pm and 7 am each week. The citizens also noted that “Wal-Mart has left many vacant and deteriorating former stores across the country after opening nearby Supercenters.” Red Bluff City officials were smart enough to reach an agreement with Wal-Mart that the retailer would pay for all the legal costs that resulted from this lawsuit. That expense could mount up if this lawsuit drags out. It also meant that Wal-Mart’s adventure in Red Bluff was going to stretch beyond the five years it has already cost the company. Shareholders will not be pleased to learn that five years have gone by without one single dollar in sales at this site. Instead of appealing the court ruling, Wal-Mart decided to redo the Environmental Impact Statement. This week, eight months after the court ruling, the Red Bluff Planning Commission will consider again whether to recommend the Wal-Mart Supercenter project, and the public will be allowed to comment on the plan again at the November 12th hearing. In September, 2008, the commission held a public hearing to take comments on the recirculated environmental impact report after the Tehama County Superior Court sent the plan back to the city for further review. The commission’s recommendation will then be passed to the city council for a binding vote. That will be a d??j?? vu for the council, since they approved the first plan back in the fall of 2006. The citizen’s lawsuit created a dispute over the noise and traffic survey. Wal-Mart also was forced to shrink the size of their store in order to comply with the parking requirements of the city. The project has also drawn criticism of Wal-Mart for its treatment of employees — which is not a zoning issue — but always good to talk about.
Many communities mistakenly pay for these legal costs themselves — even though they are “defending” the permit of a multi-billion corporation. There is no need for local residents to pay one dime to defend Wal-Mart’s permits. “I’d like the residents of Red Bluff to know that this lawsuit was anticipated,” one city official told the Red Bluff Daily News. “While the project has to go through another step, this will not be an expense to the taxpayers.” Particularly interesting in this court ruling is the detail on Wal-Mart’s impact on the sleeping habits of its neighbors. This case also raises issues which have been raised in California citizen’s appeals before, especially the concern over urban blight caused by empty Wal-Mart stores left behind by the retailer. This was a salient feature of the Bakersfield, California fight. Readers are urged to email Red Bluff Mayor Forrest Flynn with the following message: “Mayor Flynn, I was pleased to hear last March that a judge had ruled against Wal-Mart — and I hope this time around the city has learned something from the court case. Red Bluff already has a Wal-Mart, and the only new feature your city gets is another grocery store. This will result in the closing of existing grocery stores, so what added value does this bring to your city? I’m glad that Wal-Mart is footing the bill for your legal costs, because citizens shouldn’t have had to bring this lawsuit at all. I urge the Council to reject Wal-Mart this time around, and tell Wal-Mart to be content with the discount store they already have in Red Bluff. The company is already dramatically cutting back its new supercenters, a small community of your size does not need the larger store. Most of the sales tax increase you are hoping for will merely come from existing merchants. Don’t force your citizens to keep fighting you. Good land use decisions don’t have to be a win/lose. If Wal-Mart were not so adamant about building huge stores near residential property, this case would have been resolved years ago. While you’re reviewing these plans, ask Wal-Mart to sign a developer’s agreement that requires them to put money into escrow to pay for demolishing their ‘old’ store if its sits empty for 12 consecutive months or longer.”