Wal-Mart agenda twist stymies commission

The first thing on the Planning Commission’s June 5 agenda was sorting out what should have been on the agenda, but by the end of the meeting there was nothing to stop Wal-Mart from building a huge new supermarket.

The original agenda included a 100,000-square-foot expansion of Wal-Mart and the division of a chunk of property into two separate parcels. (Wal-Mart plans to add a supermarket to its existing store and 303 parking spaces on the larger parcel. The smaller parcel could eventually become a fast-food restaurant and gas station.)

But Chairwoman Jolene Francis opened the discussion by pointing out that the agenda was revised May 30, just six days before the meeting, to exclude the Wal-Mart expansion from the project.

The expansion of the store is an “allowed use in the zoning district,” Francis said, and it is not within the commission’s jurisdiction. Commissioners could vote only on whether to divide the properties, not the store expansion. After her announcement, a heated debate ensued.

Attorney Brett Jolley addressed the commission on behalf of John Shannon, of Chico, and the “residents, taxpayers and voters of Chico.” Jolley, who received a letter the afternoon before the meeting that informed him the Wal-Mart expansion would not be discussed, was frustrated that the commission couldn’t consider the actual expansion.

Jolley wanted the Planning Commission to apply CEQA (California Environmental Quality Act) guidelines to the project before making a decision. He said the only reason for dividing the land is to make it easier for Wal-Mart to expand, and CEQA requires that local governments “study the whole of the action.”

Commissioner Irving Schiffman was also bothered by the decision to exclude the store expansion from the project and discussion. Schiffman said he was concerned that the public would think the commission was splitting the project to allow the Wal-Mart expansion to slip through without considering all potential impacts.

The land in question is located south of Wal-Mart, encompassing the west side of Forest Avenue from Wal-Mart to Wittmeier Drive. City Associate Planner Ed Palmeri compiled a study of the area that takes into consideration possible environmental impacts. (For example, between 310 and 713 extra vehicle “trips” a day will come with the development of the parcels.) Palmeri recommended that the commission approve the parcel map and adopt a mitigated negative declaration, which means that widening roads, adding traffic lights, protecting wildlife and taking other measures to lessen harm to the environment become part of the project and must be met.

The debate ended with a motion to approve the mitigated negative declaration, which barely passed, 4-3. That means the 10.36-acre parcel of land will be divided into two separate parcels of 7.94 acres and 2.42 acres. Also, since Wal-Mart Real Estate Trust owns the land where the current store sits, and Wal-Mart Stores Inc. owns the part where it wants to expand, one will have to get an easement from the other to build. (City staff had originally thought the two parcels could be developed together as-is.) The easement can be approved by city staff, and the expansion would be an allowed use under the General Plan. The only way it would come before the public again is if someone appeals the project to the City Council.