Butte braces for big boxes

County attorney drafts ordinance to control huge retail chains

Golf-Mart? The Sunset Hill Golf Course could be the site of Chico’s next Wal-Mart. A company that represents the world’s largest retail corporation is reportedly looking to purchase the course for land to build a Wal-Mart supercenter.

Golf-Mart? The Sunset Hill Golf Course could be the site of Chico’s next Wal-Mart. A company that represents the world’s largest retail corporation is reportedly looking to purchase the course for land to build a Wal-Mart supercenter.

Photo By Tom Angel

Wal-Mart is OK: The urban area of Oklahoma City, population 1.8 million, has been treated to the arrival of eight Wal-Mart supercenters, seven Wal-Mart Neighborhood Markets and five Sam’s Clubs since 1997. In those six years, Wal-Mart’s share of retail sales in the area have jumped from 6 percent to more than 50 percent.

Is there another Wal-Mart in Chico’s future? That is just speculation at this point but apparently enough to send Butte County officials scrambling to fashion a zoning ordinance to give the Planning Commission some control over what can and can’t be built on county land.

An officially unidentified party has made a request of the county development services for a pre-applicant conference, the first step in building a retail store. The company making the request, through local real estate broker Jeff Farrar of Ingram Commercial Real Estate, is PacLand, an Oregon-based engineering firm that represents Wal-Mart.

The retail giant is reportedly interested in purchasing the Sunset Hills Golf Course north of Chico to build a store there. The property, located on The Esplanade at Garner Lane, is in the county and therefore under the county Planning Commission’s jurisdiction.

Wal-Mart has plans to expand its existing Chico Wal-Mart on Forest Avenue into a 200,000-plus square-foot “superstore.” However, a local man, John Shannon, who has connections to the food clerks’ union, hired Modesto attorney Brett Jolley to challenge the expansion legally on the grounds it violates the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA).

Jolley’s argument is that the proposed expansion would violate CEQA in that it would prove a detriment to the city’s financial health by killing smaller existing businesses.

When the expansion came before the Chico Planning Commission early this year, Jolley was told the city had no legal standing to stop Wal-Mart’s expansion based on city ordinances. And that is what has the county concerned.

Now there is speculation among city officials that Wal-Mart, sensing it could run into legal obstacles with expanding its Forest Avenue store, could be exploring the idea of simply abandoning that store and building a new one at the Sunset Hills location.

The Bentonville, Ark.-based retail giant could use such a threat, the same city official said, as leverage to get the city’s attention and help in battling Jolley’s lawsuit and smoothing the way for the expansion.

In the meantime, the county is taking a proactive approach. On Dec. 11 the county Planning Commission was set to look at a draft ordinance addressing retail stores bigger than 25,000 square feet.

Yvonne Christopher, the county’s director of development services, acting on a request by Butte County supervisors Jane Dolan and Mary Anne Houx, directed county counsel to draft a big-box ordinance.

“There is nothing in the county regulations that deals with that type of thing,” Christopher said. “There was nothing like that existing when the county’s ordinances were written—we never envisioned anything like that.”

County Counsel Rob MacKenzie said county staff had considered imposing a moratorium on allowing the approval of any big-box retail construction that would have lasted 45 days. The idea was rejected in favor of fashioning a new ordinance. Such an ordinance would allow the county some discretion by requiring that a use permit be issued as a matter of approval and impose mandatory design standards.

The city of Chico has no use permit requirement and thus has no way of denying such stores or their expansion as long as they are on property zoned for commercial use.

Planning Director Kim Seidler said the city does have stricter design standards than the county does but does not require a use permit. That would take an act of the City Council.

Other counties such as Contra Costa have tried to ban big-box retail from coming in, but that county’s ordinance is up for challenge on next March’s primary ballot. This summer Wal-Mart financed a referendum to qualify a ballot measure and place the issue before the voters.

A call to Wal-Mart headquarters in Bentonville was transferred to the company’s real-estate division, where the woman who answered said she could not comment on pending property purchases. A woman at the Sunset Hills golf course said she could not speak for the owners but that she had heard rumors of possible sale to a large retail outlet.