By JEREMY HAY
THE PRESS DEMOCRAT
Wal-Mart’s plan to expand its Rohnert Park store by adding a grocery store overcame on Thursday the Planning Commission roadblock it ran into in 2010. This time, planners approved the project’s environmental impact report.
The decision delighted officials from Wal-Mart, which has pursued the project for at least four years.
“On behalf of our customers, we could not be more pleased,” said company spokeswoman Amelia McLear at the meeting. “It speaks volumes for the need for jobs, community reinvestment and one-stop shopping.”
The environmental report for the project had been revised after opponents in 2010 challenged it in court, leading a Sonoma County judge to rule in 2011 that sections of it dealing with traffic and noise needed to be redone. Rohnert Park Planning and Building Manager Marilyn Ponton had recommended the revised report’s approval.
Many of the same opponents who battled the project in 2010 were at Thursday’s hearing, and the decision visibly deflated them.
“I’m very disappointed,” said Marty Bennett, co-chairman of the Living Wage Coalition, which had rallied opposition to the project.
“We feel we raised all the right issues here,” he said, “and this should not be going forward.”
But supporters whose hopes were dashed three years ago were exuberant, smiling broadly as they left the Rohnert Park City Hall and replaying comments they’d made to the commissioners during the public comment period.
Commissioners in 2010 rejected the environmental report, saying the Wal-Mart expansion would likely be detrimental in a city which already had seven grocers. They also worried at the time that the project would violate the city’s general plan, which encourages grocery stores in neighborhoods.
But on Thursday the commission barely touched on the issues it considered in 2010, instead defining its purview as being simply to assess whether the report had been revised adequately in the areas that the court had ordered.
“The thing that brings us here tonight is very, very specific and narrow,” said Commission Chairwoman Susan Adams.
Commissioners pointedly also did not address a host of issues that opponents arguing against the project raised but that were not related to the project’s environmental impact as outlined in the report. Those issues ranged from Wal-Mart’s corporate ethics to its overseas labor practices to criticisms of how it treats U.S. employees.
“Those are really not for us to consider as part of this process,” said David Armstrong, who in 2010 voted against the project but on Thursday voted to accept the environmental report.
The commission’s 2010 vote against the project was unanimous, 4-0. But the commission’s makeup is different today, with three new members.
Two of those new commissioners, Adams and Gerard Giudice, voted to accept the report, making it, with Armstrong’s vote, 3-1 in Wal-Mart’s favor.
Commissioner Susan Haydon, who is also new, was absent.
Commissioner John Borba reprised his 2010 vote against the project and looked discouraged doing it.
“One way or another I’d like this project to get done or be done,” he said a few minutes before voting.
Thursday’s hearing was full, with perhaps 100 people filling the City Hall meeting chambers and foyer. Opponents wore stickers that said “Not in Our Community.”
Supporters, many of whom were Wal-Mart employees who said the company had offered to pay them if they showed up, wore stickers that said “Jobs” and “Growth.” The arguments flowed along lines similar to 2010 — indeed, along lines similar to the debate that seems to accompany any Wal-Mart proposal anywhere in the country.
Supporters hailed the company’s promise of affordable shopping and new jobs. Wal-Mart officials said the Rohnert Park expansion would create about 85 new jobs.
“There are so many people out of work, and Wal-Mart is going to put new jobs” into the community, said Betty Overstreet of Santa Rosa.
“As a retiree, the prices are reasonable for me,” said Suzanne Cossette of Rohnert Park. “This store is so important to families too, it’s not just retirees, it’s important to so many people.”
Opponents, on the other hand, said Wal-Mart labor practices that favor part-time, low-wage workers are unfair to both company employees and local competitors.
“The Wal-Mart business model depends on removing money from our local economy, creating a downward economic spiral,” said David Ehreth of Healdsburg, a local food manufacturer.
They also pressed their case that the proposed 35,256 square-foot expansion would violate the city’s general plan.
“It undercuts one of its central premises: that people can get what they need in their neighborhoods,” said Scot Stegeman, a Sebastopol land-use consultant.
But Ponton said that the general plan, in calling for neighborhood services, actually justified the grocery addition.
“Currently there are no grocery facilities in that neighborhood,” she said, referring to the area west of Highway 101 where the store is located. She said future developments foreseen for that area would include residential units and “they need somewhere to shop.”
If someone appeals the commission’s decision, the City Council will have to vote on it, too. Opponents have said they will register an appeal. Although the past is not necessarily always an accurate guide to the present, it must in this case encourage Wal-Mart and the project’s other supporters.
In 2010, the council roundly criticized the commission’s 4-0 decision to reject the environmental report and then overturned that decision on a 4-1 vote.
One of the commissioners from that period, Amy Ahanotu, is now a councilman. And Jake Mackenzie, who was the sole vote to uphold the commission’s decision, remains on the dais.
However, the council still has a majority — Gina Belforte, Pam Stafford and Joe Callinan — who in 2010 voted to overturn the commission decision.
One key point that opponents had rallied around in 2010, that the expansion would put Pacific Market out of business, has vanished. The store closed in 2011, citing poor sales. But some on Thursday said that should have been taken into account in a different way.
If Wal-Mart adds a grocery, no other grocer will ever move into the still-vacant space once used by Pacific Market, forever depriving that eastside neighborhood of an essential service, said Roger Carrillo.
You can reach Staff Writer Jeremy A. Hay at firstname.lastname@example.org or 521-5212.