Planning Commission to hear Walmart expansion plans

Five years in the making, a final EIR and designs are up for approval

THE OPPOSITION <br> Heather Schlaff heads up the local group Chico Advocates for a Responsible Economy, which is expected to show up in force at tonight’s Planning Commission meeting on expansion of the Forest Avenue Walmart.

Heather Schlaff heads up the local group Chico Advocates for a Responsible Economy, which is expected to show up in force at tonight’s Planning Commission meeting on expansion of the Forest Avenue Walmart.

Photo By matt siracusa

Public hearing
The Planning Commission meeting is open to everyone. It will be held tonight (July 16) in City Council chambers, at 6:30 p.m. The agenda, with supporting documents, is available on the city’s Web site at Click on “Meetings and Agendas” and then choose the Planning Commission.

In 2006, Chico lawns were plastered with bright yellow signs declaring a conglomerate takeover was looming in our future. A billboard on Highway 99 asked if Chico was ready for Walmart to step in and turn a sustainable economy on its head by building two supercenters.

The group behind this effort, Chico Advocates for a Responsible Economy, has been battling Walmart expansion in Chico since 2004, and its opposition is as strong today as it was in 2006, declares Heather Schlaff, who heads up the group. But the colorful signs and other reminders of Walmart’s plans are noticeably missing this time around.

Last year, they claimed one victory when Walmart backed out of plans for a supercenter on the north end of town, where the Sunset Hills Golf Course resides.

Now, after five years and several revisions, the final EIR, or environmental impact report, for the proposed expansion of the existing Forest Avenue Walmart into a supercenter will be presented to the city Planning Commission tonight at 6:30 p.m., in the Chico City Council chambers.

Three items will be up for consideration: certification of the final EIR, approval of the parcel map and approval of the proposed architectural designs, said Senior Planner Zach Thomas. The final document is 418 pages, 350 of which are responses to the public comments made during the 30-day review period after the revised draft EIR was submitted in April.

It took a full year—from April 2008, when the DEIR was supposed to go before the Planning Commission, until April 2009, when the document was finally considered complete. During that time, the city’s appointed consultant, Pacific Municipal Consultants, further studied the traffic impacts a Walmart supercenter would create.

The Walmart supercenter would add a discount grocery store, expanding the layout from 125,889 square feet to approximately 208,358 square feet. According to the Walmart Chico Customer Action Network Web site, Walmart wants to “reflect Chico’s character and way of life” by offering organic foods and building a supercenter that is energy-efficient.

LED lighting, energy-efficient HVAC units, dimming the lights to 75 percent during night hours and using solar-reflective white-membrane roofing are some of the ways Walmart plans to save energy, according to the revised DEIR. However, CO2 emissions would rise by 56.3 percent from just the expansion alone.

Walmart proponents also look to increased employment as a positive result of a larger store.

The retail giant has spent time and money to recruit local supporters of the supercenter who paint a picture of positivity for the expansion, but the research shows that not all faces will be smiling if Walmart gets the go-ahead for its project.

According to the DEIR, traffic would increase to such a level that it would fall below the CalTrans standards for the city. This traffic would be “significant and unavoidable” on East 20th Street, Forest Avenue and Highway 99 exits both northbound and southbound.

CARE is not opposed to Walmart shoppers or employees, Schlaff explained, arguing rather that what Walmart proposes to offer is already in abundance in Chico.

“Especially in the state of the economy here and elsewhere, this is not a time to be adding something that doesn’t bring anything new to Chico,” Schlaff said. “To deny the project won’t take anything away from what we already have.”

While the EIR focuses mainly on environmental impacts, CARE hired two respected economists, Phillip G. King and Sharmila King, in 2006 to address the possible economic impact of a Walmart supercenter. The Kings, along with the California Economic Research Associates, made projections based on past experience with Walmart supercenters in California.

The report concluded that $57.9 million would be displaced from existing grocery store sales. The two grocers at the greatest risk for closure after the opening of a supercenter are Food Maxx and Raley’s on the Skyway. The supercenter could also displace customers from the Chico Mall, which has already suffered the loss of Gottschalk’s. The mall’s owner, General Growth Properties, filed for bankruptcy earlier this year. Putting JC Penney or Sears out of business could leave the Chico Mall in worse shape than it could economically handle, leading to urban decay.

Schlaff argues that while the supercenter might add jobs in the short term, the closure of surrounding stores would end in a zero-sum gain. Trying to “retenant” empty stores may prove difficult for sites like Food Maxx, since the shopping center already has a vacancy where Circuit City used to be.

The Planning Commission will give both sides a chance to speak tonight, and will listen to all public comments. With all of the public interest that has been generated over the years on this subject, the hearing could go late into the night.

While CARE’s membership consists of nearly 4,000 people, the mid-summer hearing date has hindered the number of opposition that will be in attendance.

“I had at least 20 people tell me that they wanted to speak [at tonight’s hearing], but they’re out of town,” Schlaff said.

“Ultimately the Planning Commission must be able to say that the benefits of this project outweigh any of the negatives,” Schlaff said. “I don’t believe that they’re going to be able to say that.”

Members of the Chico Planning Services Department have a different view.

“We are recommending approval for all three,” Thomas said, referring to the final EIR, the parcel map and proposed architectural design plans. “Staff makes recommendations based on policy. It is consistent with the general plan policies, zones and development designs and standards.”

Regardless of the decision made by the Planning Commission, the issue can—and mostly likely will—be appealed to the City Council for a final decision.

“Technically the Planning Commission decision is final, but because the City Council is an elected body and all, it must go before them if appealed,” Thomas said, adding that anyone can appeal the decision.