Big box bout

Hoping to rein in unchecked development of so-called “big box” retailers, the Butte County Board of Supervisors narrowly approved a new planning ordinance that upholds minimal design standards for large retail buildings and allows for greater public scrutiny of such projects.

The ordinance, conceived by Chico supervisors Mary Anne Houx and Jane Dolan, is designed to ensure that new shopping centers—including giant “superstores” like Wal-Mart’s—are constructed within specific architectural and environmental guidelines. It calls for all new retail projects of 50,000 square feet or more to first gain a use permit from the county, which would then require that the public be granted a hearing to debate each project. It also calls for building designs that are “pedestrian-friendly, with human-scale orientation [and] landscaping that allows large buildings and their components to blend in with their surroundings.” It discourages “large, nondescript buildings and ‘unfriendly’ pedestrian design, limited landscaping and vast non-shaded parking lots.”

A draft of the ordinance was presented to the planning commission around the same time it was discovered that a company representing Wal-Mart had inquired about purchasing the Sunset Hills Golf Course just north Chico for the construction of a Wal-Mart superstore. Supervisor Dolan would not confirm this as the reason for her sponsorship of the ordinance. Instead, she told the board that the new rules were needed simply to keep up with trends in retail development.

“This isn’t targeting any specific business,” she said. “It’s a modernization of our code [that] reflects what we’ve learned over the last 10 years.”

County counselor Rob Mackenzie, who helped write the ordinance, told the board that “big projects have big impacts,” to taxpayers, other businesses and the environment, and that the ordinance was a way to mitigate those impacts.

“This just puts in a few hard requirements and a few soft standards, and it also informs developers as to what we are looking for on the application.” Mackenzie said, adding that it was no more stringent than the standards the city of Chico already imposes.

Big-box stores have become increasingly controversial in California, as Wal-Mart and other retailers have begun to build larger and larger stores, often at a detriment to other businesses. Wal-Mart has also come under fire for underpaying workers, hiring illegal aliens and selling mostly foreign-made goods. City councilmembers in Oakland banned the construction of new big-box stores in an effort to keep Wal-Mart from expanding its operations there. But when supervisors in Contra Costa County attempted similar legislation, Wal-Mart sponsored a voter initiative that would allow them to build new stores anyway.

During the public comment period, David Palmerlee, of Bangor, said the ordinance doesn’t go far enough toward discouraging big-box retailers. Nonetheless, he urged the board to approve it.

“Big box retailers have a tremendous impact,” he said. “Maybe if we’d have had architectural standards in place, we wouldn’t have some of the blight that we have now. The important thing about this ordinance is that it involves the public. Public participation is extremely important—let the public see what is being proposed.”

In the end, the ordinance just squeaked by, with Supervisors Yamaguchi and Beeler voting against it without comment.