Wal-Mart wants to expand its 125,500 s.f. discount store on University Drive in Vista, California. There are five Wal-Mart’s within 8 miles of Vista, a city of 94,500 people, located 7 miles in from the Pacific Ocean. The city describes itself as having “a perfect mild Mediterranean climate… a wide range of year-round outdoor activities in a setting of gentle rolling hills and pleasant rural surroundings.” Into this pleasant rural mix comes a proposal for a Wal-Mart supercenter. The resulting reaction was not difficult to predict. This week, 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 this store expansion will create. The law firm’s interest suggests that litigation is likely to follow if the city approves the project. “The combination of a Wal-Mart project and a lawyer who is writing letters about (the California Environmental Quality Act) means that a CEQA lawsuit is very, very likely to happen,” a city attorney from San Jacinto told the North County Times. San Jacinto had to deal with similar litigation. 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.” The Wal-Mart expansion comes before the city’s Planning Commission on February 5th. 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.” The spokesman was not referring to high crime and traffic snarls. “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.
The local Chamber of Commerce, as usual, abandoned its small merchant based to heap praise on Wal-Mart. “Some corporate entities, they do nothing for the community,” the Chamber of Commerce’s chief executive told the North County Times. “They don’t get involved, they don’t donate anything to charity. But Wal-Mart is the best corporate citizen that we have.” If Wal-Mart is the best corporate citizen in Vista, then it must be the last merchant standing. It’s amazing what a few donations will buy in a small community. The irony of the Vista case is that Wal-Mart today is building 100,000 s.f. supercenters. Although the company says the average supercenter is 185,000 s.f., the store in Vista at 125,500 s.f. is already large enough to be a supercenter. Wal-Mart would simply have to remodel the inside. Vista is surrounded by discount stores, and Wal-Mart is already at work trying to convert its discount stores in Oceanside and Poway, California into supercenters. The company is looking first to expand its discount stores, which is often easier to do politically, than the find new “green” sites. Readers are urged to email Vista Mayor Morris B. 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? Wal-Mart could take their existing 125,500 s.f. store and convert it to a supercenter. They’ve done it with even smaller footprints. None of this controversy is necessary. Tell Wal-Mart to convert its store into a supercenter without building out. Or even better, say no to huge chain stores that will change the character of your city for decades. Keep the vista in Vista!”