Walmart specter and mosquito vector

The Chico City Council takes on two highly volatile issues at its Tuesday meeting

Scott Gruendl used to be a Walmart shopper.

He hasn’t shown his face in the Chico retailer since voting against the store’s proposed expansion a couple of weeks ago. Based on the tenor of the City Council’s meeting Tuesday (Dec. 1), it’s unlikely the veteran councilman will head into the store anytime soon.

Gruendl said as much after council members heard the often emotionally charged comments of dozens of residents who were unhappy with the panel’s Nov. 17 decision denying the giant retailer’s proposal to transform into a “supercenter” by adding more than 82,000 square feet to its existing Forest Avenue store. A majority of speakers lambasted officials during what turned into a marathon meeting—one of many long nights spent debating the merits of the project.

Their remarks were in response to Larry Wahl’s formal request—placed on the meeting’s agenda—asking his colleagues to reconsider their previous vote and to allow the matter to be agendized again. The councilman said he brought the issue back due to the overwhelming number of responses he’d received in the form of e-mails, phone calls and run-ins with dissatisfied constituents.

“People were surprised that this council turned it down,” he said, which was evidenced minutes later by dozens of speakers.

Criticism of the decision ran the gamut. Many focused on Walmart’s bargain prices and scolded council members for turning their backs on the low-income residents. Others bemoaned the loss of jobs and sales-tax revenue the store purported the expansion would generate. Retired Chico City Manager Fred Davis was one of many speakers who voiced concerns that the decision will discourage other businesses from setting up shop in Chico.

“What bothers me more than anything else,” he said, “is that this action is another nail in the coffin of economic development.”

Councilman Andy Holcombe took issue with Wahl’s request, calling it an “end-run” around a process that already concluded in the 4-3 vote against the proposal. Still, he and the voting majority spent time defending their positions. He reiterated that his opinion is still that Walmart did not sufficiently mitigate the economic issues associated with its proposal.

“The facts haven’t changed, and I based my decision on those facts,” he said.

Mayor Ann Schwab, who on several occasions had to call order to a meeting filled with guffaws, clapping, sighs and other disruptions from the public, also stood firm on her position. Turning down Walmart was not an easy decision, nor one she entered into lightly, she said.

Wahl made a motion to reconsider the issue, but none of the other council members supported it. The silence at the conclusion of the four-hour meeting signaled the end of about eight years of debate on the issue. Of course, Walmart is free to come back to the table in a year.

The discussion that evening followed another controversial land-use decision related to the Butte County Mosquito and Vector Control District’s proposed construction of a Chico substation on Otterson Drive near Comanche Creek. In early September, the council upheld an appeal of the Architectural Review Board’s conditional approval of the project and directed city staff to conduct an environmental review.

ARB had approved the design and site plans for the proposed 10,000-square-foot facility without the review under a CEQA exemption for infill projects. However, a majority of the council disagreed that the property met the criteria since the site is not “substantially surrounded by urban uses.”

During the latest discussion, Jake Morley, an associate planner with the city, reported that further study of the project determined it will not result in a significant impact on the environment.

The local environmentalists who filed the appeal, Sheldon Praiser and Planning Commissioner John Merz, appeared somewhat unmollified by staff’s review. Praiser remained distressed by the proximity of the waterway to the storage of chemicals. Merz’s concerns mostly related to the removal of a number of valley oaks and a plan to plant non-native species at the site. “The oak woodland that was there was violated, and that should be taken into consideration,” he said.

Stakeholders from the business and construction communities were among the most vocal—and extremely critical—speakers during a public hearing on the item. Julia Sabin, board member of the Chico Chamber of Commerce, chided council members for a delay that has kept dozens of construction workers idle. Similar comments by several others put the council members, with the exception of Wahl, who cast the lone dissenting vote back when the council upheld the appeal, on the defensive.

Councilman Jim Walker said that he twice visited the property, and reported spotting wild turkeys during his visit. Seeing no urban uses along the riparian corridor, he said he respectfully disagreed with city staff that the project qualified for the exemption. Even Mary Flynn, who was absent during the September meeting, said she agreed with the direction the council had taken on the issue.

Some members of the environmental community came to the defense of the voting majority. One of them, Emily Alma, said she was furious that members of the public would attempt to shame the panel for doing its job.

Following the close of the hearing, Wahl made a motion to accept the applicant’s project. After a friendly amendment by Holcombe, who asked that the district be required to plant all native species, the proposal passed by a unanimous vote.