By KEVIN McCALLUM
THE PRESS DEMOCRAT
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 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 email@example.com. On Twitter @citybeater.)