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Rohnert Park planners approve EIR for Wal-Mart

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.”

David Ehreth, owner of Sonoma Brinery, speaks out against the possible expansion of the Wal-mart in Rohnert Park during the Rohnert Park Planning Commission public hearing on Thursday, Jan. 24, 2013, citing the potential negative effects it would have on small locally owned businesses and their products. (Christopher Chung/ The Press Democrat)

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 jeremy.hay@pressdemocrat.com or 521-5212.





11 Responses to “Rohnert Park planners approve EIR for Wal-Mart”

  1. Snarky says:

    And, again, what employment qualifications do the government “planners” have other than the silly government job title.?

    Are they trained, licensed architects or civil engineers? Nope.

    The “planners” are merely buddies of the good old boy government network. Nothing more required.

    Government pretends to have “authority” based upon its own silly job titles and not based upon actual important job skills.

  2. Cathy Travels says:

    “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.”

    Roger Carillo is not telling the truth. A tenant for that space is already pushing paperwork through Rohnert Park City Hall to adapt and occupy that supermarket space.

  3. Reality Check says:

    Employee turnover at Walmart is about 100% every year. That is, for most people, Walmart is an entry-level job that leads to something else. Often, it’s people returning to the workforce after an absence or who need something until a better job comes along.

    And then there’s the post-retirement folks who want something to do or need extra money. For them, Walmart offers opportunity that is available nowhere else.

    There’s a myth here, that Walmart replaced Mom ‘n’ Pop retail that offered employees good pay and benefits. Not true. If you don’t like Walmart, don’t shop there.

  4. The Hammer says:

    Everyone wins at Walmart. The consumer gets the better prices on products and people who otherwise wouldn’t qualify for a job elsewhere have employment. What do you think would happen to those employees of Walmart if they had to pay them more. Walmart would hire a higher educated, higher level, employee and those poor soles working their now would be looking for a job elsewhere.

    If you don’t like how Walmart runs its business then you and the other five people who hate Walmart can shop elsewhere.

    And why is it that no one ever complains about Target. Same business plan there.

  5. MOCKINGBIRD says:

    GAJ-maybe you haven’t noticed but those workers at WALMART aren’t students working part time but FAMILIES. Maybe you haven’t noticed that the advent of union bashing over the last 40 years has resulted in a major drop in unions and union membership and that drop directly correlates to the decline in the middleclass. It’s corporations like Walmart who are busy making themselves into monopolies and putting small businesses out of business with their price undercutting. These types of jobs are replacing traditional middleclass lifetime secure jobs with benefits and pensions. You can’t retire even reasonably working for Walmart yet people work there for years because there aren’t the jobs out there.

  6. GAJ says:

    Your first job is not your last job.

    Your first job is likely not a job upon which you could raise a family of four.

    A first job is just that, a first job, a stepping stone job.

    My first job was minimum wage at a Grand Union grocery store in Miami…believe me, it taught me that, for sure, I’d better apply myself in College and at jobs I got after College to ensure I climbed the economic ladder. I was happy to get that “stepping stone” job and it taught me a lot about how I should proceed in my working life.

    There is nothing wrong with a “stepping stone” job if you think you have enough talent and perseverance to use that job as an asset to get your next, better, job.

    If you are unmotivated and unproductive and can’t rise beyond a stepping stone job then that is not something for government to “fix” by enacting “living wage” legislation or some such nonsense.

    WalMart, (which I never go into), will be a boon for poorer families looking to stretch their food dollar.

  7. Follower says:

    @JP
    The hypocrisy of Liberalism knows no bounds.
    They hate capitalism yet they can’t fund any of their pet social programs without it. So in an attempt to divert more of the spoils of capitalism their way, they tax it, regulate it and when that inevitably destroys the ability to produce profits, they subsidize it.

    BUT… Conservatives are guilty of the same type of hypocrisies.

    They claim they “want the Government out of their life” unless of course you’re a woman seeking an abortion.
    Or a gay couple seeking a marriage license.

    They incessantly rail against Government trying to control every aspect of our lives yet they support the ULTIMATE “control”, Capital Punishment!

    You can’t have it both ways.

    If you want to be able to siphon funds from Capitalism to feed your social programs you can’t simultaneously fight to destroy the very source of your funding.

    If you want the “Government out of our lives” then you can’t fight to use the Government to impose your personal beliefs on others.

    Extreme Conservatism is just as much a “Mental Disorder” as extreme Liberalism.

    There’s just a lot less of it these days.

  8. Reality Check says:

    Bear,

    If so, only one look at a Walmart parking lot would tell you that the Middle Ages must be very popular.

  9. robert motiska says:

    Yet another reason why Rohnert Park is considered the plastic armpit of Sonoma County.

  10. bear says:

    If you want an economy that resembles the Middle Ages, this is a big step forward.

  11. John Pendergast says:

    If you’re a union member at Safeway or Raley’s, this sucks. But for everyone else, it helps their bottom lines. The traditional grocery chains just have crazy prices up here. Some items should be wrapped in Tiffany’s boxes for what we pay.

    The spirit of liberalism is embracing what’s good collectively for all of us, not just one group of people. Doesn’t that mean that liberal Democrats should support the Wal-Mart expansion?