Council puts squeeze on Walmart

Wants mega-retailer to do more to mitigate negative impacts

Walmart may be a giant retailer with a reputation for bullying, but that didn’t seem to intimidate members of the Chico City Council at their meeting Tuesday (Sept. 29). They went right ahead and put the squeeze on the mega-corporation.

After deliberating for more than 2 1/2 hours, they voted 5-2, with Councilmen Jim Walker and Larry Wahl dissenting, to deny the company’s application to expand its Forest Avenue store into a supercenter by adding 82,000 square feet of floor space. But they carefully left the door ajar for possible reconsideration of their decision, on condition that Walmart do more—much more—to benefit the community.

As Councilman Scott Gruendl put it, “We’re looking at the largest retailer that exists in the universe, and I’m just asking them to get up off the floor and do more.”

At issue were what are called “overriding considerations.” In order to approve a project whose environmental-impact report has identified significant and unavoidable negative environmental impacts, as the Walmart project does, the council must determine that its benefits to the community provide the “overriding considerations” that outweigh those impacts.

As Gruendl pointed out and other council members verified, this is an independent judgment call each of them must make. And, as it turned out, five of them determined that the touted benefits of the project did not make up for its negative impacts.

Each arrived at that determination in a different way. Councilman Andy Holcombe, for example, didn’t believe that the project would produce much in the way of new jobs, one of its supposed benefits. He thought it would cause as many, or nearly as many, job losses as job gains.

Gruendl was concerned that the proposal failed to deal with potential traffic problems caused by Business Lane, a private road, and its relation to the much-impacted intersection at the entrance to the Chico Mall.

When City Attorney Lori Barker informed him the city had no legal way to require Walmart and the other owners of Business Lane to upgrade it, Gruendl replied, “I want the record to be clear. When we approved the Costco expansion, Costco stepped up and went beyond what we asked them to do.” The city may not be able to require it, he added, but he also could decide not to make a finding of overriding considerations.

Gruendl also doubted that the project would produce 150 new jobs and said the company could gain his support—the phrase “sweeten the pot” was used—by agreeing to give hiring priority to employees of any store in the area forced to close because of Walmart.

Finally, he suggested that the company do more to mitigate the air pollution caused by the expansion. Noting that Chico was the third-worst area in the state when it came to fine particulate matter in the air, he suggested Walmart contribute to the county Air Quality Management District’s wood-heater change-out program. He even gave a figure: $1 million. That would be sufficient to buy a new, EPA-certified wood heater for all of the low-income Chicoans who need one.

Then it was Mayor Ann Schwab’s turn. She reminded everyone that the city is committed to reducing greenhouse-gas emissions by 25 percent by 2020. “All you have to do is look across the highway [from Walmart] and see what Sierra Nevada is doing” in terms of solar energy, she said, adding that the city and Butte College are also leaders in sustainability.

“It would make sense for Walmart to put in solar” on its new facility, she suggested.

As the list of conditions lengthened, Councilman Larry Wahl, a consistent supporter of the project, lamented, “If we bleed these guys dry [and] kill the golden goose, who else would want to come here?”

For much of the discussion, it was difficult to tell how the final vote would go. Wahl mounted a spirited defense of Walmart, aggressively calling for it to be treated as any other land-use proposal would be treated, and for most of the discussion seemed to have at least two other council members in his corner.

On several occasions he turned to city staffers, asking them such questions as whether Walmart was an inferior project (no), whether it conformed to the city’s economic-development strategy (yes), and whether it was a major contributor to the city’s tax base (yes).

He also argued passionately for the council to avoid deciding “winners and losers in the marketplace” and to let free and fair competition differentiate among businesses. “It’s not our job to predict the future,” he said.

Walmart, he insisted, serves the 20 percent of the people in Chico and Butte County who live below the poverty line and “have to make their dollars go further.”

Councilman Jim Walker also supported the proposal, though not as enthusiastically as Wahl. Indeed, he said he had to separate out his personal feelings about Walmart in order to make an objective determination on a land-use application.

After studying the matter deeply, he said, he’d decided that the negative environmental impacts simply weren’t large enough to warrant denial. Both traffic and air-quality impacts were relatively inconsequential, he said.

And, for some time, it appeared Councilwoman Mary Flynn supported the project. She talked at some length about benefits it would have beyond those described in the EIR, especially enabling local food manufacturers to get a trial shelf run locally that—if the items proved popular—could spread throughout Walmart’s vast distribution system.

“We need to get beyond the sales-tax and jobs positions to see Walmart’s larger [positive] impacts,” she said.

She also disagreed with Holcombe’s contention that the project conflicted with the general-plan land-use designation for the site, arguing that the designation was “ambiguous” and that “we shouldn’t cherry-pick language in the general plan to deny this project.”

And she worried about the 300,000 square feet of current empty retail space mentioned by the city’s economic-development director, Martha Wescoat-Andes. “We need to remember,” she said, “that the demand still exists. We’re in a precarious position to lose consumer spending that leaks to outlying areas.”

Still, when it came to finding overriding considerations, she lined up with Gruendl and the others—Tom Nickell, Schwab and Holcombe—who wanted Walmart to do more.

Walmart attorney Meriam Montesinos said the company was willing to have further discussions, and the council set a special meeting for Nov. 10 to reconsider the project.