What overriding considerations?

Walmart should mitigate its air-pollution impacts by paying into an offset fund

Tonight (Thursday, July 30) beginning at 6:30, the Chico Planning Commission will convene for the third week in a row to talk about the proposed Walmart expansion. The project would turn the Forest Avenue store into a “supercenter” that, in addition to carrying its current selection of household goods, would also sell a full line of grocery products.

The commissioners have listened to city staff and members of the public. Now it’s time for them to discuss the proposal among themselves and decide whether to approve it. Whatever their decision, it undoubtedly will be appealed to the City Council.

One subject that has come up repeatedly is that, according to Walmart’s environmental-impact report, the expansion will have significant and unavoidable impacts on air quality. That’s because it will generate more traffic in the area, causing increased air pollution. In order to approve it, the commission—and later the City Council—must certify that there are overriding considerations that render the project desirable despite those unavoidable impacts.

This is common practice with large projects. The council earlier approved both the Meriam Park mixed-use project and the Enloe Medical Center expansion after finding there were overriding considerations—the need for housing and for a larger hospital—that warranted doing so.

Walmart is trickier. The case can be made—and is being made—that Chico doesn’t need another discount grocer. That raises the question: What overriding considerations would excuse Walmart’s adding more pollution to the air?

Walmart would be wise to tackle this issue head-on, by voluntarily agreeing to fund air-quality offsets. The city and the county Air Quality Management District don’t yet have a system for imposing development-impact fees for air pollution—they’re working on it—but developers can voluntarily offset their air-quality impacts by paying into a fund managed by the district.

The money could be used locally to replace dirty old wood heaters and diesel engines, as well as for public education, stated Gale Williams, the senior air-quality planner for the AQMD. “There’s no reason any project needs to come up with overriding considerations,” she said. Are you listening, Walmart?