By KEVIN McCALLUM
THE PRESS DEMOCRAT
The owner of the site of a possible Sprouts Farmers Market won a key zoning approval from the City Council on Tuesday despite questions about whether he was splitting the project into two phases to sidestep opposition.
Owner Ubaldo Tambellini said he’s been trying for a decade to clean his 4.2-acre hillside property at the northeast corner of Bicentennial Way and Mendocino Avenue. An aging 22-unit apartment building and a few homes currently are on the site.
He said he’s been in discussions with Phoenix-based Sprouts Farmers Market, a fast-growing natural foods chain, about perhaps building a 30,000-square-foot market, but has not signed a deal.
Nevertheless, Tambellini asked the council to change the General Plan and the zoning to allow a retail center.
A majority of council members said they were comfortable with that approach, noting that the site seems to be a good fit for some kind of retail even if it’s not yet clear what that would be.
“We don’t know what’s going to end up on that corner,” John Sawyer said, but added that information is not yet critical.
But other council members said they were deeply troubled by what they saw as an intentional effort to manipulate the city’s land-use approval process. Susan Gorin said she felt the owner was requesting the zoning changes separate from the project to avoid public opposition.
“The attempt to deceive me is incredibly insulting and irritating,” Gorin said.
The approach did not eliminate opposition, however.
Tom Scott, general manager of Oliver’s Market, raised an array of objections, including allowing out-of-area corporations to “cherry pick” locations that would increase competition for local businesses.
But mostly he said he was upset about considering the zoning changes divorced from consideration of a project.
“It’s very obvious to anybody that’s paying attention that this General Plan Amendment question came about because of Sprouts,” he said. “To do it this way really is not right. It doesn’t smell right.”
The original application by AVB Development Partners outlined in detail that it needed the General Plan and zoning changes in order to build a Sprouts.
Assistant City Attorney Molly Dillon told the council this had “created confusion,” and that the applicant has included the Sprouts information to illustrate one type of project that might work for the site.
“We don’t have a project in front of us so we can’t analyze that,” Dillon said.
Nica Poznanovich, a spokeswoman for Community Market, told the council to look closely at the original application and note how much of the justification for the zoning changes were based on the idea that a Sprouts would be built.
If that is stripped away, the rationale for the General Plan and zoning changes also falls short, she said.
“You are being asked to make a decision based on the information that you have been given, but you can’t even use 99 percent of the information in this document,” she said.
Terry Garrett, a representative of the Go Local Cooperative that supports local businesses, sought to make the case that there already is an oversupply of groceries in the city, and one more would only hurt the others.
“Being business friendly also means being friendly to the businesses you already have,” he said.
But Vice Mayor Jake Ours said he was swayed by data showing office vacancies continue to rise while retail vacancy rates in the city continue to drop. This supports letting the property owner adjust to market conditions, he said.
“We need retail. We don’t need office space. This is a step in the right direction,” he said.
Council members Sawyer, Ours, Ernesto Olivares and Scott Bartley voted to approve the changes. Gorin, Marsha Vas Dupre and Gary Wysocky were opposed.