By KEVIN McCALLUM
THE PRESS DEMOCRAT
Wal-Mart’s plan to supersize its Rohnert Park store was turned back Thursday when planning commissioners voted 4-0 to deny the environmental impact report on the project.
The vote came at the conclusion of a four-hour hearing that drew strong support from fans of low prices, along with sharp criticism from those concerned about the store’s impact on the local economy.
An overflow crowd packed the Rohnert Park City Council chambers to tell city planning commissioners how the proposed 32,000-square-foot expansion to the existing Wal-Mart on Redwood Drive would affect their community. And when it was over, the crowd erupted in cheers as commissioners sided with those worried that bringing a grocery store into a town with seven other grocery stores would be detrimental to the community.
“It’s a great disappointment,” Wal-Mart spokeswoman Angela Stoner said. She said she could not immediately say if the company would appeal the ruling to the city council, but strongly suggested it would.
“We owe it to our customers to continue the process,” she said.
Planning commissioners said they were heartened to hear from so many in the community and said it was a difficult decision.
“This has been a great exercise in democracy,” said John Borba Gorba, chairman of the commission.
He and other commissioners questioned whether the project would conform to the city’s general plan, which supports grocery stores in neighborhoods, and ultimately voted down the plan.
The meeting was the first public hearing to review the environmental impact report prepared for the Wal-Mart project.
Numerous speakers worried that growth of the megastore would damage local businesses, but others supported the competition and said they appreciated the chain’s low prices.
“The American way is competition,” Rohnert Park resident Dorothon Logan-Fadala said. “Wal-Mart is absolutely wonderful. I’ve shopped their forever.”
The expansion plans also drew spirited support from current Wal-Mart employees, who emphasized that their employer was providing full health benefits that they otherwise would not have.
But most of the debate centered on low prices versus business and job losses in the community.
Ben Boyce of Sonoma, a consultant to GoLocal Sonoma, a chapter of a national advocacy group for local businesses and economies, said the impacts of the project on local business would include lower wages, overall job losses and blighted storefronts.
“The Planning Commission should reject the proposal because it will produce a net loss for the city,” he said.
Several speakers worried that the project would put the locally owned Pacific Market out of business. That was voiced by Burke Webb of Santa Rosa, an Oklahoma native and current Pacific Market employee.
He urged planning commissioners to look at the big picture as it made its recommendations: “The downtowns of two towns I know very well have been decimated,” he said, without specifically naming the Oklahoma towns that he said were impacted by Wal-Mart.
A preliminary environmental report said it would threaten Pacific Market, which is about the same size as Wal-Mart’s proposed expansion and has 50 employees, who earn an average of $15.32 an hour plus benefits.
Wal-Mart says the store will add 85 new full- and part-time jobs. A recent study by Sonoma State University’s Center for Regional Economic Analysis, commissioned by Pacific Market, said that local employers would lose between 105 and 211 jobs to Wal-Mart.
SSU professor Rob Eyler, chairman of the economics department and director of the center, stood and recounted that study, noting the ripple effect that could occur should a grocery store and business anchor like Pacific Market close.
Prior to the decision, Stoner of Wal-Mart said the project would allow Wal-Mart to carry items that its customers have been asking it to stock for years.
She said the store would continue its long tradition of supporting local charities.
“Wal-Mart believes in giving back to the communities we serve,” she said.
Much of the opposition to the expansion has focused on concerns about Wal-Mart’s labor practices. Included in the opposition were people who helped defeat a proposed Wal-Mart store in Santa Rosa’s Roseland area in 2009 by raising similar themes.
Wal-Mart argued the project would benefit the city and that its competitors should not be protected.
Boyce’s opposition group argued that the grocery addition wouldn’t mean more revenue for the cash-strapped city because food sales aren’t taxed.
Resident Tom Thunderhorse said he supported the expansion because he is a senior citizen who lives on a fixed income.
“I can’t see going to Pacific Market because I couldn’t afford to go there anyway,” he said.
He also questioned whether the predicted impacts of the expansion on Highway 101 were accurate.
“The freeway’s not clogged up because of the new Wal-Mart, the freeway’s clogged up because of the new freeway,” he said.