Wal-Mart has figured out that environmental groups that care about greenhouse emissions can be bought out with another kind of green.
Just about one year ago, on May 16, 2009, Sprawl-Busters reported that Wal-Mart planned to build a superstore in the high desert town of Yucca Valley, California.
This story goes back at least five years. Despite the fact Wal-Mart already had a discount store in Yucca Valley, at 29 Palms Highway, it wanted to build a new superstore. The “old” Wal-Mart has been there for roughly 15 years.
There are also two Wal-Mart supercenters within 25 miles of Yucca Valley in Palm Springs and Palm Desert.
When the Wal-Mart arrived in 1993, it did a considerable amount of harm to the local retail economy in this town of roughly 20,400 people. Now Wal-Mart wants to build another store — this time a 229,000 s.f. supercenter — further down the road on Palms Highway, right next to a Home Depot project. The existing Wal-Mart would be closed down.
Yucca Valley is a Southern California high desert community that lies between the San Bernardino Mountains and the Joshua Tree National Park. It’s the hub of the Morongo Basin communities and a host of recreational opportunities and tourist attractions. Wal-Mart’s plans met with strong opposition in Yucca Valley, but the retailer won the approval of the Town Council for its superstore.
This project has been dragging through the review process for five years. In July, 2007, Wal-Mart published an Environmental Impact Report (EIR) on the project, and the town’s planners concluded that “all potential impacts associated with the proposed project could be mitigated, with the exception of those impacts associated with air quality and noise.” The town then focused on whether the “economic, legal, social, technological or other benefits outweigh the significant and unavoidable impacts associated with the project.”
Because of citizen complaints, Wal-Mart had to drop several aspects of the original superstore plan, including a gas station and a drive-through pharmacy. The company also had to find a buyer for their old store. Residents warned of the increased water use demands the store would create, the loss of Joshua trees from construction, the light pollution, increased traffic, and big box and fast food blight.
On August 5, 2008, Sprawl-Busters noted that a group called the Center for Biological Diversity (CBD), along with a consortium of groups in the Morongo Basin, each had filed a lawsuit against the Town of Yucca Valley, challenging the town’s approval of the supercenter.
The lawsuit asked the town to conduct a new environmental impact report. According to the CBD, the lawsuit sought to force Wal-Mart to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from new store construction as required by California law. Conservationists are challenging Wal-Mart’s failure to implement measures to reduce the carbon footprint of its new supercenter.
“Wal-Mart has stated for years that its goal is to be supplied by 100-percent renewable energy,” said Jonathan Evans of the Center for Biological Diversity. “Yet even for stores proposed in the California desert, it refuses to incorporate cost-effective features like solar panels to reduce its carbon footprint.”
The Yucca Valley lawsuit was one of a series of court challenges brought by the Center to reduce greenhouse gases from new development through the California Environmental Quality Act.
On September 17, 2008, Sprawl-Busters noted that a group called The Coalition for Environmental Integrity in Yucca Valley (CEIYV) had gathered 1,296 signatures on petitions to force the Yucca Valley Town Council to repeal its approval of the Wal-Mart Supercenter or put the project on a ballot for Yucca Valley’s voters.
On May 15, 2009, Sprawl-Busters issued an update that San Bernardino County Superior Court Judge Barry Plotkin had overturned the Town of Yucca Valley’s approval of a the Wal-Mart supercenter. The judge found the EIR’s greenhouse gas analysis deficient and faulted the EIR for failing to discuss all feasible air quality mitigation measures. The judge also faulted the EIR for failing to include a discussion of a ‘green’ Wal-Mart supercenter alternative, and faulted the Town for failing to make the necessary findings to reject the EIR’s environmentally superior alternative.
The judge also found the EIR’s “urban decay” analysis was flawed and was based on stale and incorrect data. Opponents had hired an Associate Professor at San Francisco State University to conduct a peer-review of Wal-Mart’s economic analysis.
The opponent’s peer reviewed showed that a new supercenter would have an utterly devastating impact on the Town’s retail sector. The judge agreed with this economic conclusion: “The EIRs and accompanying reports clearly show that after the project is built there will be an excess of 450,000 s.f. of non-grocery retail, equal to over 60% of the total retail identified in the original (2006) EIR.” This enormous surplus of vacant retail space would create a huge long-term problem for the Town, the court found. “Indeed, if one projects a 5% growth in demand for retail space… it will take until 2017 — nine years from now — for this excess supply of space to clear, assuming no new structures are built. Given these circumstances, it is clear that there is substantial potential for urban decay.”
The citizen’s consultant said that the new Wal-Mart supercenter would almost certainly result in the closure of the Food4Less and probably one of the Town’s two Stater Brothers grocery stores, setting off a spiral of urban decay. Wal-Mart’s consultant conceded that the superstore’s impacts on retail vacancies would be 16 times greater than had been disclosed in the EIR. The judge found this concession itself constituted “significant new information” that needed to be presented to the public in a recirculated EIR.
But one year after the judge’s ruling, the two groups that had been fighting the Wal-Mart in Yucca Valley have sent a letter to the Mayor and Town Council announcing that they have reached a “negotiated resolution” of their lawsuit with Wal-Mart.
According to their March 4, 2010 letter, the CEIYV and the CBD have signed a confidential settlement with Wal-Mart as a compromise the end the litigation. The groups say that Wal-Mart has agreed to certain steps to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, and “to take additional renewal energy and sustainability measures at its stores. “Some of these measures may not be appropriate at every location (in California),” the letter says, “but the information gained from the Yucca Valley store may lead to broader application.”
In the settlement, Wal-Mart agrees to: install at least 250 kilowatts of roof-top solar panels at one of their stores in California, “with first priority given to the Yucca Valley store”; install a second roof-top facility at another of their stores in California; incorporate “high efficiency and sustainability measures” into the design of the Yucca Valley store, such as recirculating refrigeration waste heat, hybrid design air handling units, water source heat pumps, air cooled rooftop air conditioners, LED lighting in refrigerated cases, LED lighting in the parking lot, a recycling program, and an enhanced refrigeration audit.
But in addition to these environmental fixes, the CBD and CEIYV insisted that Wal-Mart address the “values of preserving sensitive habitat as well as preserving and promoting economic vitality and growth within the Town’s retail sector.” To that end, Wal-Mart agreed to contribute $120,000 to the Mojave Desert Land Trust for land conservation in the Morongo Basin, and to pay for the cost of a consultant who would prepare a “Retail Sector Strategies Report to assess the Town’s retail sector and recommend measures to proactively preserve and promote economic vitality and growth within it.”
In return for these concessions by Wal-Mart, the environmental groups agree “not to object to, or disrupt, the opening of the Wal-Mart Yucca Valley store.”
The CEIYV did ask for “one exception” to this agreement. The group retained the right , “if it so chooses, to endorse an initiative that restricts or prohibits the development of a new ‘discount superstore” in the Town.”
On the same day that this agreement in Yucca Valley was announced, the CBD announced an almost identical agreement in the city of Perris, California, in which Wal-Mart agrees to many of the same environmental design changes in return for CBD’s pledge “not to object to, or disrupt, the opening of the Wal-Mart Perris store.” In Perris, Wal-Mart makes no land trust payment, and pays for no retail consultant — just the promise to put solar panels on the roof of one of its stores — “with first priority given to the Perris store.”
For a very small amount of ‘green’ cash, plus some commitments to install energy-efficient design into their huge stores, Wal-Mart brushes off these environmental groups at two superstore projects.
The project in Yucca Valley, at 229,000 s.f. is one of the largest prototypes for a superstore anywhere in the country. Almost the size of five football fields, there will be a flat roof with enough room for many solar panels. The town will also get a “dark store” when the existing Wal-Mart discount store is closed, and becomes blighted, because no one else will lease or buy it.
All the negative impacts of this huge store that are not building-related, will continue — such as the air quality impacts from thousands of car trips daily, the increased public safety crime-related impacts, the noise and light pollution in the high desert area, etc.
The “Retail Strategies Report” will produce little value for the retailers who go out of business, and for the ones that remain, the advice will be predicable: you can survive and thrive in the shadow of a Wal-Mart by not selling anything they sell. Wal-Mart itself has encouraged these kinds of Retail Studies which never seem to produce any positive results.
The fact is Wal-Mart will devastate smaller competitors in the Yucca Valley area, and the environmental groups who agreed to the Study have gained nothing from its inclusion in the settlement.
In the end, the Wal-Mart building will perhaps produce less greenhouse gas, but this is only one of the environmental, economic and social issues facing small towns like Yucca Valley.
The settlement leaves unaddressed the basic question: “Why should a town agree to let a developer build a larger store when the new store will result in the certain closure of a smaller store? Why is this store needed at all?”
The settlement could have included a requirement that Wal-Mart agree to tear down its existing store if no new retail use is found for the building within 12 months. The settlement could have required Wal-Mart to make annual payments over 5 years into a small business loan fund to be administered by the town to help foster business development downtown. The settlement could have insisted that Wal-Mart cut its store footprint in half, thereby achieving additional environmental goals and producing a building more efficient to operate. The settlement could have insisted that the store be built on two levels, to further reduce its wasteful consumption of land. The settlement could have required the store to close at 11 pm and open at 7 am. Many other operational issues could have made this store a more compatible neighbor.
By throwing around a little “green” in Yucca Valley, Wal-Mart gets its larger store, more sales penetration in this limited market, and hundreds of millions in sales over the next 20 years. It was certainly a small price to pay.
The neighbors to this store have their properties ruined in value and enjoyment by the hulking presence of a superstore. The Center for Biological Diversity, which signed both the Perris and the Yucca Valley agreements, have been greenwashed by Wal-Mart, and in the process, washing away any hopes the neighbors had for the peaceful enjoyment of their property.
In May of 2009, The Center for Biological Diversity issued a press release stating that Wal-Mart had violated California law by ignoring climate change. “The court agreed that Wal-Mart broke the law by refusing to even consider common-sense measures to reduce the greenhouse gas footprint of its latest big-box store,” said Matt Vespa, senior attorney with the Center’s Climate Law Institute. “California law requires consideration of greenhouse emissions and other environmental impacts from new development, and it is only fair that Wal-Mart comply with this important requirement.”
The California Environmental Quality Act mandates that where an environmental impact is determined to be significant, all feasible mitigation measures must be adopted to substantially lessen the impact. “Wal-Mart talks a lot about fighting global warming, but when it comes to actually taking action, it bent over backwards to avoid incorporating cost-effective features like solar panels to reduce its carbon footprint,” Vespa added. “The enormous disconnect between Wal-Mart’s stated environmental goals and its actions is classic greenwashing… Business-as-usual big box sprawl is devastating to our environment and communities,” said Vespa. “California law requires Wal-Mart to take stronger steps to live up to its promise to reduce significant environmental impacts like global warming.”
In a press release issued shortly after the Perris and Yucca Valley settlements were announced, Vespa said: “The settlement raises the bar for future projects. If big-box stores are to be built in California, measures like the installation of solar-power systems must be adopted to minimize the project’s greenhouse gas pollution.”
The Wal-Mart building alone will take up 22 acres of currently open space. The existing Wal-Mart in Yucca Valley is 115,000 s.f. — large enough to be reconfigured as a supercenter. Readers are urged to cut and paste this article into an email to Attorney Matt Vespa of the Center for Biological Diversity at: [email protected] with the following message: “Dear Mr. Vespa, Wal-Mart superstores by definition are environmentally wasteful, energy-inefficient, and economically valueless. The company did not need another store — of any size — in Yucca Valley, and your ‘settlement’ with the company looks more like a High Desert greenwashing than an environmental victory. The real environmental solution to these superstores is not to put a tuxedo on the Frankenstein monster — but to pull their plug altogether. Even with the green bells and whistles you want — this store is still an unnecessary energy hog, land consumptive, and an ultimate blight on the landscape that someone else will have to tear down within two decades. Please stop making such ‘green’ settlements.”