Once again, Wal-Mart has been cut down to size. Roughly a year ago, on December 1, 2007, Sprawl-Busters reported that a local citizen’s group in Stockton, California had taken on the world’s largest retailer — and blocked a Wal-Mart superstore. After three years of battles, the citizen’s group had their moment in court this time last year. The Stockton Citizens for Sensible Planning beat Wal-Mart twice in court. On August 21, 2007, Sprawl-Busters reported that the City Council in Stockton, California had joined a growing number of communities in capping the size of certain big box retail stores. By a vote of 6-1, the City Council voted to prohibit stores that exceed 100,000 square feet and which contain full-size grocery stores. The ordinance exempts discount stores like Costco or Sam’s Club. There is one Wal-Mart superstore already in Stockton on East Hammer Lane, which will not be affected, because it is already open for business and pre-dated the size limit. But the Wal-Mart had a second superstore planed for the north side of Stockton, that was filed before the cap took effect. When the city granted approval, the Stockton Citizens for Sensible Planning hired a lawyer and took the city to court. The citizens won in Superior Court on grounds that the city’s staff person had made procedural errors. Wal-Mart then appealed the Superior Court decision. Three months after Wal-Mart’s appeal, the courts stopped Wal-Mart’s growth plans in Stockton. In a 2-1 decision, the Appeals Court upheld a San Joaquin County Superior Court ruling that the city of Stockton failed to follow state law in approving the development on a portion of Spanos Park West, being built by the Spanos Construction Co. After the environmental review for the project had been done, Spanos told the city it wanted to build a 207,000 s.f. Wal-Mart store on land that was zoned to be used for high-density residential development. The initial approval for the store in 2004 was based on a letter to Spanos from the city’s Community Development Department director. But the Superior court ruled that the letter from city staff was not sufficient under the state’s Environmental Quality Act, and that the proposed use change from a Mixed Use (MX) residential to a Wal Mart “superstore” was “a major change … that requires a discretionary act that triggers a CEQA review.” Wal-Mart then appealed the Superior Court ruling, and on November 28, 2007, the Third Appellate District Court wrote, “We shall conclude that the Director’s letter did not constitute an ‘approval’ of the Wal-Mart project. We also conclude that the Director’s letter did not constitute a determination by a ‘public agency’ since the director was not delegated and could not have been delegated authority to approve a project requiring environmental review.” The Community Development Director for Stockton had written that the plans for the store “were in substantial conformance” with a Master Development Plan adopted by the City. The City had approved the 560 acre Spanos Park West requiring the construction of high density housing in the MX zone. The original project was to include business and residential development but was later changed to retail and residential development. The letter from city staff was not posted, published or otherwise made public. The Initial Environmental Document for this land called for 2,514 residential units on 361.5 acres. It also provided for 1,700,000 sq. ft. of office space on 92.12 acres. The two parcels Wal-Mart wanted were specifically set aside for residential use. City staff clearly mishandled this application, and the Director’s letter was kept from the public, “and the only formal notice of the decision was the filing with the County Clerk two months later,” long after the opportunity to appeal the decision had elapsed. The court ruled that “appeals by members of the public… contemplates that such an approval by the Director must be capable of being known by the public, either because the approval is posted or published or otherwise distributed to the public.” The letter was described as a “Status Report,” not a final project approval… so members of the public would not know to exercise their appeal rights.” The letter also failed to state the size of the store, its location on specific parcels in the MX zone, “or that it displaced 627 units of high-density housing required by the Density Agreement, or other information that would have put the public on notice of the nature and consequences of the project.” One year after this court fiasco for Wal-Mart, the retailer is going to get their second superstore — but this one is going to fit into the city’s 100,000 s.f. size cap, and it has been relocated to the south side of the city. According to the Stockton Record, the City Council on December 2, 2008 approved construction of a Wal-Mart on a parcel known as the Weston Ranch. The planned shopping center with Wal-Mart will open in late 2010. The Record newspaper quoted local officials as saying, “Residents no longer will have to drive miles north to shop.” A few miles drive to a Wal-Mart appears to be a major journey for Stockton residents, but at least the project has been cut in half. City officials passed the size cap because of their concern that big box stores “would cripple smaller shops, drive spending from the city core and tarnish Stockton’s image,” according to the newspaper. The Weston Ranch store originally was slated to be 232,000 s.f. but is now measured at 99,996 s.f., and will have a grocery component. The Record says that Wal-Mart’s smaller store plan was a political victory for the city council, because the project’s developer, Vestar Development, had warned that if the big box size cap passed, that Wal-Mart would never build in Weston Ranch. It turns out that Wal-Mart was more willing to shrink its store than the developer said. Two city councilors said the smaller store proved that the city could ask more from developers than traditionally required. At this smaller size, there was no opposition to the project before the city council. Last year, Weston Ranch residents swarmed the council chambers to fight the superstore. Which just shows that ‘size matters’ when it comes to box stores.
The City of Stockton’s General Plan provides that the City “shall maintain an adequate supply of land designated as high-density residential to meet the requirements of General Plan’s Housing Element.” The trial court found that “the change from residential to a Superstore retail unit was a major change in the Development Plan that requires a discretionary act which triggers a CEQA review.” Instead of a Wal-Mart supercenter, the city’s plans called for high density residential uses “intended to serve residents seeking the convenience of a highly concentrated urbanized setting that minimizes the reliance on personal vehicles and optimizes the relationship between home and the workplace.” Because of the Stockton Citizens for Sensible Planning, Wal-Mart had to wait three years, went through two court appeals, and ended up with a superstore less than half the size of its original plan. To read the full Appellate court decision, go to: http://www.centralvalleybusinesstimes.com/links/C050885.PDF. Readers are urged to contact Stockton Mayor Ed Chavez at: http://user.govoutreach.com/stockton/?classificationId=4038&flag1=7 with the following message: “Dear Mayor Chavez, Congratulations on cutting Wal-Mart down to size. At almost 100,000 s.f., this superstore is still nearly as big as two footballs fields — so this is still a ‘large’ building by any standards. The fact is, all cities should have a cap on retail building size to prevent the worst damage that can be done by superstores. A more appropriate size cap would be 65,000 s.f., but Stockton has stood up to the large corporation and won a big victory with a small store. The citizens of Stockton should not have found it necessary to go to court to protect their rights, but the courts came down on their side, and in the end, Wal-Mart only got half of what it wanted. There are still many residents in the city who no doubt preferred no loaf to half a loaf — but the Council has proven that developers are wrong to say Wal-Mart will pull out of a project if they are forced to scale down. In fact, Wal-Mart has stated for the record that it is favoring smaller supercenters in the years ahead. Stockton has helped demonstrate that smaller footprints are possible — even though they are still large by other retailers’ standards.”