A bigger box

Public has its say on proposed Walmart expansion

Staff from the city’s Community Development Department discuss Walmart’s expansion plans July 21.

Staff from the city’s Community Development Department discuss Walmart’s expansion plans July 21.

Photo by Ken Smith

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The draft environmental impact report for Walmart's proposed expansion is available online at tinyurl.com/chicowalmartDEIR.

Over a decade ago, Chico residents came out in force against Walmart’s plans to expand in Chico. Their biggest concerns? Traffic and a bigger store’s impact on existing retail in the area, especially other grocery stores. Now Walmart has another plan to grow the store and, though the details have changed, the concerns remain the same.

This was apparent at the Chico Planning Commission meeting on July 21, the first forum held for members of the public to weigh in on the new project. Though commentary was limited to content of the project’s draft environmental impact report, about a dozen speakers took to the podium, with two expressing support for the expansion.

The draft EIR has been available on the city’s website since June 17, and the Planning Commission meeting was held to obtain feedback as part of the document’s 45-day public review period. Written comments will be accepted by the city until 5 p.m. on Monday (Aug. 1).

Walmart wants to expand the Forest Avenue store by up to 66,500 square feet on the existing building’s south side, increasing the store’s footprint from 131,302 to 197,802 square feet (the former plan would have increased the size to approximately 208,000 square feet). The company also wants to build an eight-pump fuel station with a 1,500-square-foot convenience store, and two pads for future retail stores or restaurants totaling 52,000 square feet. The development would involve expanding south to Wittmeier Drive and splitting the property into three separate parcels. Most of the growth on the main store—55,730 square feet of it—would be used to establish a full-service grocery department including produce, a deli and a bakery.

Traffic issues were the primary citizen concerns. Mike Sawley, an associate planner with the city’s Community Development Department, kicked off the meeting by outlining mitigation measures the company has proposed to alleviate increased traffic. He said Walmart has agreed to fund improvements to the intersection of Forest Avenue and East 20th Street, including restriping the road to create more turn lanes and reprogramming traffic lights. Walmart will also pay for the installation of traffic lights at Forest Avenue and Wittmeier Drive, and Sawley said impact development fees could help fund further street improvements.

Taking the podium, speaker Chris Nelson called the EIR “inconsistent, inadequate and inaccurate,” noting it doesn’t remedy one of Chico’s strangest traffic situations at Business Lane and East 20th Street, where drivers leaving Walmart and adjacent businesses have to cut through the Toys R Us parking lot.

“It’s the most ridiculous and ineffective way to route traffic,” she said. “It’s already in place and there’s no plan to change it from the look of things.”

Nelson and other speakers also said the traffic study done for the EIR, which monitored traffic in the area for three days in October, was inadequate. She quoted a passage from the EIR that reads: “The timing of physical intersection improvements cannot be guaranteed to occur prior to the future traffic volumes that would cause the intersection [at East 20th Street and Forest Avenue] to operate at an unacceptable level of service.”

“This is vague and alarming,” she said. “How much are we going to put up with so [Walmart] can collect more profits?”

Ben Perle, regional vice president of operations for Oxford Suites, was also concerned with traffic.

“The EIR does not address the fact that Walmart is proposing to continue to use and actually increase the use of private roads, Business Lane and Baney Lane,” he said. “There’s no maintenance plan in place and Walmart is asking private businesses to foot the bill for long-term maintenance of those roadways. Both Baney and Business lanes were constructed to service businesses along those roads and they were never intended for all the 18-wheelers and double axles that use them now.”

Perle also said sound measurements were not properly executed and that Walmart used Oxford Suites property without permission to record the data.

“The EIR doesn’t provide necessary documentation about the number of trucks using Business Lane, or the time of day it was measured,” he said. “… [T]hat’s a pretty significant omission … Walmart is asking to increase the truck traffic between 8 p.m. and 8 a.m., and possibly even double that traffic. As you know, hotels sell a good night’s sleep, and added traffic can have a big impact on our business.”

Other speakers complained that the EIR doesn’t adequately address the impact the expansion could have on local businesses, with several prognosticating that Walmart’s entry into the local grocery business could lead to other stores closing and urban decay. The EIR acknowledges this possibility, stating “one grocery store could close and some restaurants. The result could be the equivalent of up to 80,000 square feet of vacant space ….” That, however, is considered a “less than significant” impact, according to the report.

Tom Nickell argued that one store closing is significant, and said that he fears Walmart’s expansion could affect more businesses. As a former City Council member whose tenure included Walmart’s first expansion attempt, he said the Walmart enlargement could lead to the closure of other supermarkets, specifically Food Maxx, and that his independent research during Walmart’s last bid to go bigger indicated a potential loss of more than 200 local jobs.

“This new project EIR really hasn’t changed anything since back when I was on the council,” Nickell said.