Court rules against Wal-Mart

A state appellate court ruling last week in favor of a citizens group that sued the city of Bakersfield and Wal-Mart representatives could conceivably affect the planned expansion of Wal-Mart’s interests here in Chico.

Last February the Chico Planning Commission slowed the expansion of the Forest Avenue Wal-Mart into a Supercenter store by going against a city staff recommendation and ordering a full environmental-impact report before work begins to basically double the size of the store and add a grocery section.

Prior to that decision, the commission had generally acquiesced to Wal-Mart representatives’ wishes at a couple of sparsely attended meetings. That ended when a local man, John Shannon, who is connected with the grocery clerks union, hired Modesto attorney Brett Jolley to try to stop the expansion, which led to the order for a full EIR last February. That report is due sometime next spring.

Jolley argued the city had to consider the possibility that allowing the expansion of Wal-Mart into a Supercenter could have a detrimental effect on the city’s existing commerce, leading to shuttered grocery stores and in turn creating blighted shopping centers that were anchored by those stores.

The city argued at the time that the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA), the policy that guides development, did not require economic-impact considerations.

In the meantime Wal-Mart representatives moved to purchase the Sunset Hills Golf Course that sits north of Chico between The Esplanade and Highway 99 with plans to build another Supercenter, one of about 40 slated for California.

Down Highway 99, about 300 miles to the south, sits Bakersfield, which is facing Wal-Mart plans that sound eerily similar to Chico’s. The city government there had moved to accommodate the expansion of an existing Wal-Mart into a Wal-Mart Supercenter and also approved the construction of a new Supercenter less than four miles away.

In Bakersfield both projects were well through the development pipeline when the Bakersfield Citizens for Local Control, represented by Jolley’s law office, sued the city and the Wal-Mart representatives and won in the Fifth Appellate District Court.

That court’s decision orders the city to revoke all development and zoning approvals and start over from scratch, Jolley explained.

He went onto to say that “the decision has statewide ramifications for pending shopping centers in California—particularly those that will include a Wal-Mart Supercenter.”

In effect, the court ruled that because Supercenters operate 24 hours per day, their increased impact relating to lights, noise, traffic and crime must be considered and that Bakersfield’s failure to disclose this proposed use is “not only misleading and inaccurate, but it hints at mendacity.”

To this point, the city of Chico has been unable to announce the coming of Wal-Mart to the golf course location north of town, because another company, PacLand, has been representing the Arkansas-based mega-store. Wal-Mart’s name does not appear on any of the required applications.

The court ruling also says the local government agencies must consider possible “urban decay” impacts of Supercenters. The court ruled that Bakersfield had dismissed such consideration as outside the scope of environmental review, Jolley said.

“When there is evidence suggesting that the economic and social effects caused by the proposed shopping center ultimately could result in urban decay or deterioration, then the lead agency is obligated to assess this indirect impact,” the court said.

The court also ruled that in such cases local government must ensure public participation in the process. At meetings last year on the expansion of the existing Wal-Mart here in Chico, opponents had argued that the Planning Commission agenda did not accurately reflect the business before the commission and thus full citizen participation did not occur.

Chico Planning Director Kim Seidler said he had just recently heard of the court ruling in the Bakersfield case but hesitated to comment without reading it in full.

When he heard of the details of the Bakersfield Wal-Mart situation, Seidler noted the local similarities and joked, “Wait, are we talking about Chico or Bakersfield?

“What it sounds like is maybe Bakersfield screwed up in some ways that I hope we are not,” Seidler said.

Wal-Mart’s purchase of the golf course is moving forward and could be complete by this summer, followed by an environmental-impact report and annexation into the city.