Wal-Mart’s plans to expand its discount store in Vista, California have led to a courtroom, not a ribbon-cutting. The retailer says that its customers’ “freedom to shop” is being threatened. On February 3, 2008, Sprawl-Busters reported that Wal-Mart wanted to put a 28,500 s.f. addition onto its 125,500 s.f. discount store on University Drive in Vista. There are already five Wal-Marts within 8 miles of Vista, a city of 94,500 people. 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 argued that Vista approved the expansion plan two decades ago, and the giant retailer has finally decided to proceed. In August of 2007, Latham & Watkins, plus one of the city’s Planning Commissioners, appealed the staff decision supporting the supercenter, and forced the project to go to a Planning Commission hearing. The law firm alleged 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 a Planning Commission hearing, to give them time to study and respond to the legal issues. A Wal-Mart spokesman complained at the time 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 North County Times. In February, 2008, Latham & Watkins filed an appeal from the Vista Planning Commission’s decision to allow the expansion on University Drive. The proposal then headed to the Vista City Council, which the newspaper said “appears likely” to approve Wal-Mart’s plans. No one was surprised when the Vista City Council unanimously approved the project in March, 2008 on a 5-0 vote. Mayor Morris Vance said the Wal-Mart would generate sales tax revenue, and his constituents want it. “It was a no-brainer as far as we were concerned and as far as the community was concerned too,” the Mayor said. Vance had harsh words for the person who retained Latham & Watkins to appeal the city’s decisions. “I like to call him a phantom client of a law firm that has presented us with a boiler plate of lawsuits that they present whenever Wal-Mart’s name is mentioned,” the Mayor complained. The media has reported that Latham & Watkins was representing a Vista resident name Isidro Zamora. Wal-Mart told the media that “special interest groups” were 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.” The week, a group calling itself Concerned Citizens of Vista filed a lawsuit against the city to stop the Wal-Mart expansion. The lawsuit says the plaintiff has “an interest in protecting the region’s air quality, minimizing and ameliorating traffic, ensuring informed and responsible growth, and promoting other environment-related quality-of-life issues.” Attorney Cory J. Briggs, who represents Concerned Citizens, has not named the plaintiffs in the case, saying they deserve privacy. According to the San Diego Union Tribune, Briggs has been involved in litigation against Wal-Mart and Target in six other California communities: Murrieta, Blythe, Menifee, Ontario, Victorville and Riverside. “We win or settle favorably far more of them than we lose,” Briggs told the newspaper. “If I thought they had followed the law, I would not have filed the lawsuit.” The lawsuit asks for a full environmental assessment before the expansion can happen. The lawsuit charges that Vista officials violated the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) by failing to complete an environmental impact report on the expansion. This charge has been used in Bakersfield and several other California communities.
Wal-Mart says that special interests are “interfering with these families’ freedom to shop,” and are hurting working families who are “just trying to stretch their dollar.” This could be said of Wal-Mart’s employees, who are struggling to makes ends meet by stretching the low wages they make once a Wal-Mart supercenter opens. Wal-Mart implies that there is some kind of constitutionally-protected “freedom to shop,” when in fact opposing a Wal-Mart expansion is the exercise of a citizen’s First Amendment freedom to petition government. Wal-Mart makes the “freedom to shop” sound like its part of the Bill of Rights — but opposing a company that destroys other businesses is protecting the freedom to shop at other businesses. Readers are urged to email Vista Mayor Vance 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? You said granting them the expansion was a no-brainer. That’s probably true, because anyone with half a brain would have seen through Wal-Mart’s phony jobs and revenue argument. You should tell Wal-Mart that if they want to defend their permit — that’s fine — but the city of Vista should not spend one penny defending Wal-Mart’s building permit. Vista was not mandated to approve an expansion, and now you should make Wal-Mart bear the financial burden of defending their project in court. The residents who don’t want this store should not have to pay for the lawsuit, and to defend Wal-Mart in court.”