Wal-Mart is defending the “Freedom to shop,” which was not on Norman Rockwell’s list of Freedoms — but is an important Freedom that we often overlook. On February 3, 2008, Sprawl-Busters reported that Wal-Mart wanted to expand its 125,500 s.f. discount store on University Drive in Vista, California. There are already five Wal-Mart’s within 8 miles of Vista, a city of 94,500 people. The North County Times reports that city officials got a letter from the law firm of Latham & Watkins, charging that Vista failed to sufficiently study the environmental impacts that the store expansion would create. Wal-Mart argues that Vista approved the expansion plan two decades ago, and the giant retailer has finally decided to proceed. “What is clear is that the store is pre-entitled for groceries,” a Wal-Mart spokesman told the newspaper. “And we’re going to process the application with the city as quickly and expeditiously as possible.” Wal-Mart wants to build-on another 28,500 s.f. of grocery space, bringing the whole store up to 154,000 s.f. Vista planning staff gave a green light to the project, saying that the original Wal-Mart discount store in the early 1990s included approval to grow the store. In August of 2007, Latham & Watkins, plus one of the city’s Planning Commissioners, appealed the staff decision, and forced the project to go to a Planning Commission hearing. The law firm alleges that the staff approval had “procedural and substantive defects,” and that Wal-Mart should be required to file a new environmental impact study. The law firm’s letter forced city staff to postpone the Commission hearing, to give them time to study and respond to the legal issues. A Wal-Mart spokesman complained that the legal objections being raised were just “delay tactics.” “This process that we’re in, we really shouldn’t even be here at this point,” the retailer’s spokesman said. “We fully expect to gain all of our approvals to get this store expanded so our customers can enjoy the benefits of what a Superstore brings. We still are under the impression that we’re going to meet a timetable of getting this store expanded in 2009,” the Wal-Mart spokesman told the NC Times. This week, Latham & Watkins followed through and filed an appeal from the Vista Planning Commission’s decision to allow the Wal-expansion on University Drive. The expansion now heads to the Vista City Council, which the newspaper says “appears likely” to approve Wal-Mart’s plans. This is a strange prediction, since the City Council is supposed to act like impartial judges in such cases. This legal appeal is the second filed in this project, and is part of the requirement that a plaintiff “exhaust all administration remedies” before going to court. If the law firm did not file these appeals, a court review would not be possible.
The City Council hearing will take place in March. The law firm is representing a Vista resident named Isidro Zamora. Wal-Mart told the media that “special interest groups” are backing Zamora. Wal-Mart’s spokesman told the North County Times that these special interests were “interfering with these families’ freedom to shop where they want and to buy groceries at a low price. Given the state of the economy, you’d think their actions would be in support of working families who are just trying to stretch their dollar.” Wal-Mart implies that there is some kind of constitutionally-protected “right to shop,” when in fact opposing a Wal-Mart expansion is the exercise of a citizen’s First Amendment right to petition government. In Wal-Mart’s book, the “right to shop” is part of the Bill of Rights, and opposing a company that destroys other businesses is not protecting the right to shop at other businesses. Vista Mayor Morris Vance told the newspaper that the City Council was likely to support the expansion, because they expected that the project would grow in size. The original plan for the building, which was approved in the early 1990s, included space to expand, he said. “I think they have a right to complete their project,” the Mayor said. Readers are urged to email Vista MayorVance at [email protected] Tell the Mayor: “You said in your State of the City Address last year that ‘A major focus on our Economic Development efforts is to help local companies grow and expand in Vista.’ Do you consider Wal-Mart a local company? Do you think allowing them to add on a grocery store on University Drive is going to help local merchants? You say your residents have plenty of discretionary income to attract new retail chains — but what has happened to your local merchants? Does Vista want to attract more low wage jobs? Wal-Mart could take their existing 125,500 s.f. store and convert it to a supercenter without adding one square foot more. They’ve done it with even smaller footprints. None of this controversy is necessary. You are supposed to be acting as an impartial judge in this case — yet you have already clearly shown your bias. You, and any other Council members who have already pre-judged this case, should recuse yourselves. You have demonstrated that you cannot give the residents of Vista a fair and impartial tribunal, but have already reached a decision before the case even gets to the Council.”