On January 31, 2011, the Planning Commission in Tehachapi, California — in front of the largest gathering of residents ever to attend a Commission meeting — voted 4-1 to green light a 165,000 s.f. Wal-Mart superstore. The Commission voted to approve Wal-Mart’s environmental report, and to endorse the site plan. But that controversial vote is now going to the City Council, not a ribbon-cutting. Residents of Tehachapi have paid a $1,561 fee to appeal the Commission’s decision to their elected officials on the City Council, and the future of this enormous project now hangs on how the Council decides to vote.
Opponents of the project had until February 14th to file an appeal — and they filed it on February 10th. The Tehachapi News reports this week that fifteen people gathered at City Hall in support of local businessman Henry Schaeffer, who paid for and filed the appeal. Because of Schaeffer’s action, the matter now will go before the City Council.
This project has been through a three year hearing process thus far — and controversy has dogged it every step of the way. “Citizen” Wal-Mart has created a website and recruited citizens to join its “Tehachapi Citizens Action Network” to support the project at hearings. Yet at the most recent Commission hearing, the Tehachapi News estimated that as many as 700 people turned out — many of them staying until almost midnight before the vote was taken. The high school gym bleachers were filled to capacity, and the crowd overflowed into the lobby.
“This is the greatest show of public interest in a project we have had in a long time,” one Planning Commissioner said before the vote was taken. “That you are still sitting here at 10 minutes after 11 shows interest.” According to the Tehachapi News, 61 speakers testified, of which 31 were opposed, 24 in favor, and 7 expressed concerns that did not easily fall in either camp. Residents stayed to the bitter end because they were convinced that this huge retail store will have a negative impact on existing retailers. One store owner spoke the truth that most businesses are afraid to admit in public. “I have no doubt Walmart will put me out of business. Tehachapi is just being greedy. It just wants the sales tax.”
Other residents charged that Wal-Mart’s suburban sprawl would dramatically change the character of Tehachapi. “I loved what this town didn’t have,” said one resident. “If they don’t sell enough Chinese underwear, make it an indoor rodeo when it’s empty.” Wal-Mart turned out some of its own employees to brag about the company, in addition to the residents that the retailer had recruited through its community organizing. One Commissioner who voted for the plan was quoted by the News as saying that people who don’t like Wal-Mart can choose to not shop at the store or organize boycotts about the manufacturing and labor practices of the store.
Immediately after the vote, Tehachapi residents against the superstore made it clear they were not finished. “I don’t think it’s a done deal,” said Shannon Turner, who started collecting resident signatures a few weeks before the final vote. “I’m not giving up,” she told the News. “They want us to believe there is no fighting the largest corporation that’s ever existed.” The group she has formed is called Tehachapi First, which means the homeowners and the taxpayers of Tehachapi come first, and the out-of-state corporations come last.
Sprawl-Busters reported on July 5, 2010 that consultants hired by the city of Tehachapi had warned the city that if a 165,000 sf. Wal-Mart superstore was built, there would be a downside to the retail sector.
According to the Draft Environmental Impact Report (DEIR), which is almost 600 pages long, a new Wal-Mart will kill off one of the city’s two existing grocery stores, and likely force the existing Kmart to go out of business.
As the Tehachapi News has reported, a new Wal-Mart “will bring economic hardship upon some existing stores.” The proposed store has 34,293 s.f. of grocery space, and this could have a severe impact on either the existing Albertson’s or Save Mart. “The Wal-Mart grocery component will potentially cause one of the existing supermarkets in Tehachapi to close,” the consultants concluded.
The news was not much better for Kmart. “The existing Tehachapi Kmart store is likely to be vulnerable to new competition,” the report concluded. Tehachapi’s current square footage devoted to groceries is 93,566 square feet. Adding a Wal-Mart grocery section at 34,293 s.f. represents a sudden increase in capacity of 37%.
“Given the relatively modest growth in citywide grocery demand over the next several years,” the DEIR said, “only a small portion of Wal-Mart’s grocery sales would be supported by incremental demand. The vast majority of Wal-Mart’s grocery sales would be diverted from existing supermarkets in the City… the proposed project could potentially cause one of the existing supermarkets in Tehachapi to close, given that the combined sales volumes of the two existing supermarkets would fall 35 percent from the existing level with the entry of the Wal-Mart store in 2011.”
Wal-Mart took exception with these conclusions. “We disagree with the finding of the EIR when it comes to store closures,” a Wal-Mart spokesman said. “Studies have shown that the presence of Wal-Mart provides positive economic benefits to the cities, the local economy and to neighboring businesses.”
Kmart shrugged off the bad news. “Retailing is a competitive business,” said a spokesman for Sears Holding Company, which owns Kmart. “We are always in proximity to each other.” But the countryside is littered with dead Kmarts, many of which have been filled by other competitors — including Wal-Mart.
The spokesman at Save Mart was a tad bit more realistic. She told The News, “A Supercenter Walmart is a significant competitor. We will continue to do the things we do best, serving the Tehachapi community. We are hopeful they will continue to support our business.” But ‘hope’ will not be enough to save Save Mart.
The DEIR said that the “Tehachapi Kmart store is vulnerable to closure, due to the chain’s internal challenges combined with increased competition introduced by the proposed project. The existing Kmart store is approximately 91,500 square feet, and the larger of the two existing supermarkets (Albertsons) is approximately 49,500 square feet. Thus, in the worst-case scenario of these two stores closing, the existing amount of vacant square feet in the trade area would increase by approximately 141,000 s.f.” That’s 85% of the new Wal-Mart superstore’s square footage.
Smaller players in the Tehachapi trade area were more outspoken in their assessment. The owner of Radio Shack described Wal-Mart’s potential impact as “drastic” and added, “You’ll see a lot of empty buildings. It will have a big impact on business in this town. Radio Shacks have survived Wal-Mart but they really put a dent in business. They ran the one in Ridgecrest (CA) out.”
The News quoted the owner of Southern Shooters Supply as saying, “Yeah, it’s going to kill us, like a lot of businesses in town. We’re still trying to decide what we’re going to do. Wal-Mart is the kiss of death for any small business in a small community. Look at the drug stores, the grocery stores, Radio Shack. They’re (Wal-Mart) going to undercut us all.”
Months before the final vote, a Wal-Mart spokesman had said, “Tehachapi residents are very excited to be able to shop locally and not drive to Bakersfield and about the 300 new jobs it is going to create.”
The DEIR for this project noted that “Police Department indicates that additional police services may be required for the site… The cumulative increase of police service would require additional officers to maintain the existing ratios of officers to civilians… the combination of the related projects and the proposed projects may require additional staffing to the extent that an expanded police station may be required… the proposed project when combined with the related projects could result in a significant impact.” Yet the fiscal study did not estimate the added revenue cost of more police for Tehachapi.
The impact on this huge store on traffic has not been resolved. According to the DEIR, “Nine of the 19 key study intersections will be significantly impacted with the addition of project traffic… three impacted intersections… would continue to operate at a less than acceptable Level of Service, therefore the cumulative traffic impacts would be significant and unavoidable… ”
The DEIR also said that the Wal-Mart project would create nearly 8,100 tons of carbon dioxide emissions per year without any project design features, of which 6,700 is from cars. With mitigation features, greenhouse gas emissions could be cut by 7% to 7.6 metric tons.
The DEIR also looked at a “reduced intensity alternative” to the larger store — and analyzed the impact of cutting the store size to 123,750 s.f. But the ‘reduced intensity’ store — a 25% smaller footprint — did not make much difference to the economic impacts. “Similar to the proposed project, this alternative could potentially cause one of the existing supermarkets and the Kmart in Tehachapi to close… There would be a similar increase in fire and police protection services as a result of operational activities… ”
A smaller version of the store would still create traffic problems. “New project-related vehicle trips would still occur, but it is assumed the number of trips would be reduced due to the reduction in square footage and therefore, smaller amount of merchandise available to purchase at the reduced Wal-Mart… is assumed that trip generation from the project would be reduced… However, this alternative would still likely contribute to significant and unavoidable cumulative impacts at the three identified intersections, as the identified mitigation measures for those intersections are not feasible… ”
“Therefore, similar to the proposed project, the Reduced Intensity Alternative would still result in significant and unavoidable impacts with respect to operational cumulative noise, and cumulative traffic impacts at three intersections. All other less than significant impacts would be either less or similar to the proposed project.”
Readers are urged to email the Mayor of Tehachapi, Linda Vernon, at: [email protected] with this message: “Dear Mayor Vernon, You have said you want economic growth that is in the best interest of the entire community, and responsible growth that protects your natural resources. At the January 31st Wal-Mart hearing, you had an enormous outpouring of sentiment against this huge project. Your constituents are telling you that Tehachapi does not need a Wal-Mart superstore — especially one that is 165,000 s.f.
As your own DEIR demonstrated, you will lose almost as much square footage of retail space as you will gain, and the net impact of jobs will be almost negligible. Instead, you will be expanding the suburban sprawl model of a single story box with a massive parking apron around it. This does not fit the character of Tehachapi, and will only draw foot traffic away from your historic downtown.
There is enough information in the EIR to reject this project. It will increase your crime, and leave you with several intersections with unacceptable traffic congestion. This is all you will get from a Wal-Mart — along with more empty retail buildings that will be very hard to fill.
As Mayor, you have the choice to either lead growth, or follow it. When the Tehachapi First appeal reaches the City Council, it is important for you to lead the vote against a project of this scale on environmental and economic grounds.”
On January 31, 2011, the Planning Commission in Tehachapi, California—in front of the largest gathering of residents ever to attend a Commission meeting—voted 4-1 to green light a 165,000 s.f. Wal-Mart superstore. The Commission voted to approve Wal-Mart’s environmental report, and to endorse the site plan. But that controversial vote is now going to the City Council—not a ribbon-cutting. Residents of Tehachapi have paid a $1,561 fee to appeal the Commission’s decision to their elected officials on the City Council, and the future of this enormous project now hangs on how the Council decides to vote.