By JEREMY HAY
THE PRESS DEMOCRAT
A day after the Rohnert Park City Council gave the go ahead for the controversial expansion of Wal-Mart, divisions remained razor sharp over the proposed supercenter.
The council late Thursday overturned — and sharply rebuked — an April vote by the city Planning Commission, which had unanimously rejected the application by Wal-Mart, the world’s biggest retailer, to add a grocery to its Redwood Drive store.
“The Planning Commission didn’t do their job and shame on them,” Councilman Joe Callinan said in supporting the supercenter near the end of a 5 ½-hour meeting that drew hundreds of people to City Hall.
The commission had worried about the effect on other Rohnert Park grocery stores and said the expansion would be inconsistent with a section of the city’s general plan that calls for encouraging supermarkets to be “close to where people live.”
But the council, in a 4-1 vote with Councilman Jake Mackenzie opposed, said the project’s benefits were greater than its potential negative impacts and the project was consistent with city land use policies.
“We need to uphold the law, we need to apply the law, and we need to allow this project to move forward. I believe that not to do so would be un-American,” said Councilwoman Amie Breeze.
Mayor Pam Stafford and Vice Mayor Gina Belforte also voted in favor, saying the law compelled them to approve the project and the store would boost the city’s economy.
In reacting to the decision, Rohnert Park residents and county labor leaders, as well as Wal-Mart’s own representatives, echoed the wide philosophical chasm evident at Thurday’s meeting.
John Borba, the Planning Commission chairman, said Friday, “I think they made the wrong decision.”
Responding to Callinan’s comment, he said, “Look, Joe’s my friend, and he’s a good guy, and he’s entitled to his opinion, but I completely disagree.”
Wal-Mart critics promised to continue their opposition.
“We have not seen the end of this by any means,” said Marty Bennett, co-chairman of the Living Wage Coalition, part of a loose coalition of groups that opposed the project.
A Wal-Mart spokeswoman said opponents trying to still block the project would be acting against the city’s best interests.
“It will be very unfortunate if special interests did delay the process even further,” said spokeswoman Angela Stoner. “They’ve planned for economic development in Rohnert Park, and they want the project to move forward as quickly as possible.”
Foes of a Wal-Mart planned for Roseland won a courtroom challenge of the Santa Rosa City Council’s approval of the store, leading the company to end its bid in 2009, five years after announcing its plans.
Opponents of the Rohnert Park expansion said legal action was being considered.
“All options are on the table, including a lawsuit, and what we’re going to be doing is huddling to decide on the next step,” Bennett said.
It will happen, Borba predicted.
“I fully expect someone will appeal the decision of the City Council to the Superior Court,” said Borba, who has said he will be a candidate for the council in November.
He said he would support such a lawsuit.
Mackenzie on Thursday said the environmental impact report prepared for the project did not show it would significantly increase sales tax revenues for the city, because groceries are not taxed, or provide a “diverse array of jobs to city residents,” as the general plan calls for.
Such benefits were among those the report cited as considerations that the council should take into account when deciding whether the project’s benefits would outweigh its potential negative impacts.
If the report does not include actual evidence of those benefits, Mackenzie said, opponents may be able to challenge the council’s decision in court.
“I personally believe that there are grounds for legal action to be taken in this matter,” he said.
Other responses to the council vote might include a push for a citizen referendum to overturn the decision or a campaign in November’s election to punish council members who voted for Wal-Mart, Bennett said.
Mayor Pam Stafford and Councilwoman Amie Breeze are up for re-election. Stafford has said she will run; Breeze has not yet announced.
Wal-Mart’s Stoner would not say whether the company expects or is preparing for a legal challenge.
While Wal-Mart had said it hoped to open the 32,000-square-foot grocery in 2012, Stoner was unwilling Thursday to confirm that.
“We will just have to wait and see if the opposition does delay us in starting the expansion,” she said.
Perhaps the only player in the Wal-Mart drama to have cleared its agenda is the city.
“The city has completed its work,” said Interim City Manager John Dunn. “There’s some more detailed plans to be prepared and submitted, but essentially the city has given its approval for proceeding.”