By JEREMY HAY
THE PRESS DEMOCRAT
Wal-Mart may revive a controversial plan to expand its Rohnert Park store with a 32,000-square-foot grocery — a proposal approved by the city two years ago but then stopped in court.
“We’re evaluating the next steps and working with the city on the requirements established by the judge’s ruling,” said Wal-Mart West media director Delia Garcia.
She was referring to a 2011 decision in which Sonoma County Superior Court Judge Rene Chouteau said parts of the environmental report for the project were inadequate.
Ruling on a lawsuit filed by Wal-Mart opponents, Chouteau ordered the sections addressing traffic mitigation and noise impacts to be redone.
Garcia did not say whether that has happened. But she said: “We are committed to serving our customers in Rohnert Park. We want to be able to serve them better. Expanding that store … would accomplish that.”
Rohnert Park officials Friday said the project’s return would boost a city struggling to strengthen its economic base.
“That’s exceptionally good news for the city,” said Linda Babonis, the city’s economic development manager. “Jobs creation, in this day, right now, is a great thing.”
If the company renews its bid to remake its Redwood Drive store into a Wal-Mart Supercenter, it may reignite one of the more divisive issues the city has dealt with in recent years.
The City Council in 2010 overturned its Planning Commission’s earlier unanimous rejection of the Wal-Mart plan. That infuriated opponents who had argued that not only was the project’s environmental report inadequate, but that it violated parts of the city general plan.
The council, on a 4-1 vote, said the commission had been wrong, that the project’s benefits outweighed its potential negative impacts and that it was consistent with city land-use policies.
One of the planning commissioners who voted against the plan, Amy Ahanotu, is now a councilman. He declined Friday to comment on the project’s prospects should it return.
The lone council vote against the project, Jake Mackenzie, said Friday that he would not be surprised if the company tries again to expand.
“We’ll just have to wait and see what comes back to the Planning Commission and the City Council,” he said.
Arguments in 2010 against the project often centered on its potential impact on an east side neighborhood grocery, Pacific Market, whose owners said it would be forced to close if the Wal-Mart expansion was approved. The store closed anyway, in February 2011, with its owners saying sales never met their projections.
Mackenzie on Friday sounded a note that may well echo should the world’s biggest retailer bring its plan back to the table.
“Certainly any huge expansion of Wal-Mart at that store is not going to help the cause of finding a replacement retail food person going into the former Pacific Market space,” he said.
Wal-Mart foes said they stood ready to renew their fight against the expansion if it comes back.
“Absolutely,” said Martin Bennett, co-chairman of the Living Wage Coalition, which helped rally a broad coalition of groups and residents against the project in 2010.
“This will definitely become an election issue in the fall,” he said.