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Living Wage Coalition sues Santa Rosa over new grocery zoning


Santa Rosa is being sued for its decision to relax zoning rules for large grocery stores that want to set up shop in existing buildings in the city’s southeast.

When the City Council passed the zoning changes in September, it said it was trying to remove hurdles for businesses, create jobs and give low-income residents better access to fresh food and vegetables.

The former Circuit City building on Santa Rosa Avenue. (Jeff Kan Lee / PD)

The move appears to have had its intended effect.

Warehouse chain Smart & Final plans to occupy the former Circuit City location in the Santa Rosa Town Center on Santa Rosa Avenue, according to the company.

But the Living Wage Coalition of Sonoma County worries that the zoning change will make it easier for out-of-area grocery chains to open with no input from residents or assessment of the impacts on other businesses.

“The food-desert policy approved by the council majority is not about access to healthy food by low income Santa Rosa residents,” Julio Soto, a Santa Rosa resident and member of the coalition, said in a release. “It is about giving a landowner a free pass to avoid public scrutiny of a larger grocery store that will undermine the viability of other community shopping centers nearby.”

The suit is the latest round in a tussle between those who want to the ease requirements on new businesses and those who worry that doing so will limit the input neighborhoods will have over such projects.

The council made two significant changes to the city’s zoning rules for grocery stores this year.

In June it allowed small grocery stores to locate in any commercial district without a use permit. It also gave the same right to large or small grocery stores seeking to locate downtown. Waiving the use permit requirements eliminates the public hearing process on the merits of such projects.

Large grocery stores (those over 20,000 square feet) also were allowed to locate outside the 17 “community shopper centers” designated in the city’s General Plan with a use permit.

Then in September the council waived the use permit requirement for large grocery stores reoccupying existing buildings in the city’s southeast. In addition to the need to fill existing buildings, the council cited evidence that the area was a “food desert” where lower income people have less access to groceries.

The decision followed a request from commercial real estate broker Tom Laugero. He told the council he was in negotiations with a grocery store hoping to locate in the former Circuit City location, but the additional cost and delay of the use permit process “will probably kill this deal.”

Conditional use permits cost applicants about $12,000 and involve a public hearing before the Planning Commission, said city planner Erin Morris. Those decisions can be appealed to the City Council. Without the requirement for such a permit, residents would have input only on the design of such projects.

The suit was filed Oct. 23 in Sonoma County Superior Court seeking to overturn the council’s action. City Attorney Caroline Fowler said the city was still reviewing the legal action.

The suit claims the council “abused its discretion” because the decision was inconsistent with the city’s General Plan and shouldn’t have been exempt from environmental review.

It also argues there was no evidence that a “food desert” existed as defined by the United States Department of Agriculture.

The suit noted that the city’s designation was based on 2000 census data, and ignored the fact that stores such as Costco, Target and Trader Joe’s sell groceries.

Santa Rosa Junior College professor Marty Bennett, co-chair of the coalition, said his primary concern is that the less restrictive zoning rules could open the door for Wal-Mart to open one of its smaller neighborhood stores.

“They definitively have been using these food deserts to roll out small-marts and to gain entry to urban areas where they have encountered opposition,” Bennett said.

The coalition was one of the groups that sued to block Wal-Mart from opening a store in southwest Santa Rosa, plans the mega-chain dropped in 2009.

(You can reach Staff Writer Kevin McCallum at 521-5207 or kevin.mccallum@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @citybeater.)

12 Responses to “Living Wage Coalition sues Santa Rosa over new grocery zoning”

  1. Steveguy says:

    Seems like everything is sued and ‘decided’ by a judge, except anything to do with stack and pack transit oriented gulags. Only edicts from regional boards and agencies in Oakland can be immune from lawsuits. Un-elected boards and agencies.

    You WILL submit.

    Thumb up 10 Thumb down 1

  2. Mac E. Velli says:

    Where’s the Living Wage Coalition getting its money? Is it from Michael Allen? Is it from Susan Gorin? Is it from ‘CPA for 30 years’ Wysocky? Is it from Lisa Maldonado?

    Are the workers opposing this or is this cadre of strong-arming controllers trolling for hand-outs?

    Were they working for Friedmans’ when they fought Lowes? Who pays them?

    They are part of New Green Deal (with Norman Soloman), Accountable Development Coalition (investigation by Grand Jury), the Green Shirt marching orders are in.

    Stand up to these thugs.

    Thumb up 17 Thumb down 2

  3. neighbor says:

    I for one will live within walking distance of the Smart & Final and I am ecstatic that it is coming. I have been waiting for years when I first heard they were trying to come to my neighborhood. Every small business we get in the neighborhood usually charges to much or goes out of business. I have to jump in my car and go through the Costco traffic or go to Rohnert park when I want a loaf of bread or head of lettuce. Or I can pay the inflated prices at the quick stops along the Avenue. Think of all the jobs and money it will bring in.

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  4. Bill me says:

    A vote for Gorin is a vote to support “sue happy” job killers like Marty Bennett. He and Gorin are tight. Check out her endorsements. Good ‘ole Marty is there.

    Thumb up 32 Thumb down 1

  5. Snarky says:

    Santa Rosa Junior College professor MARTY BENNETT, co-chair of the coalition…

    … is your typical government parasite pretending to be important and wiser than neighborhood residents and voters.

    Notice the Press Democrat gives ZERO information on who is funding the “coalition” ????

    Thumb up 31 Thumb down 1

  6. Snarky says:

    Vote “NO” on Prop 30 and any other tax raising measure… the only way to control a monster government is to deprive them of funding.

    And any state or local government that has the audacity and arrogance to restrict free enterprise and “out of area” retailers is an out of control government.

    VOTE “NO” ON PROP 30.

    Starve the beast.

    Thumb up 25 Thumb down 2

  7. Caller says:

    Dear Living Wage Coalition: BACK OFF.

    Thumb up 47 Thumb down 5

  8. Terry says:

    Can you say “shakedown”?

    Thumb up 41 Thumb down 5

  9. Reality Check says:

    Once upon a time the “citizen input” the LWC seeks was provided by–quaint term these days–customers. Either they liked the business, in which case it prospered, or they didn’t and it closed.

    I don’t get the hostility to “out of area” businesses. Is Santa Rosa an island nation? I thought we were part of a large economic zone called the United States.

    The idea that some sort of special review is appropriate before letting “outsiders” come and do business here should be repugnant to everyone who values what America once stood for.

    Thumb up 44 Thumb down 2

  10. Critic at Large says:

    Professor Bennett is well rewarded at SRJC for putting in a minimal days work. He wants all of the rest of we peasants to go without jobs but continue to pay his handsome salary with our tax dollars.

    Hopefully the city isn’t frightened off by this frivilous law suit. Santa Rosa needs to stand up to these socialist activists with their archaic dogma.

    Santa Rosa and Sonoma County needs jobs and a growing business community. We don’t need dreamers who don’t wish us well trying to move us into an old worn out soviet model.

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  11. James Bennett says:

    The Living Wage Coalition.
    Another group masquerading as an organic citizen group.
    Like The Greenbelt Alliance.
    Socially engineering consensus for Smart Growth and socialist principals.

    Replace the word “advocates” for community lobbyists and you get the idea.

    One step forward with the Council employing some common sense.
    Then one step back with this socially engineered legal sabotage.

    “Killing deals”, welcome to ICLEI infested Sonoma County.

    The grocer is a much needed natural fit.

    Kinda like putting an upscale fast food restaurant in a blighted building that was a…FAST FOOD RESTAURANT!

    Thumb up 46 Thumb down 5

  12. GAJ says:

    Smart & Final would seem a perfect fit for this area.

    This lawsuit is being done at the behest of Unions who seem never to have the interests of the general population in mind.

    How much do Smart & Final employees make on average?

    Cashiers = $25k

    Supervisors = $40k

    Assistant Managers = $52k

    Yeah, who needs those jobs in an area where unemployment is 8.3%.


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