By JEREMY HAY
THE PRESS DEMOCRAT
Wal-Mart is resuming efforts to expand its Rohnert Park store into a superstore, reviving a controversial plan that was halted in court after one of the more divisive arguments in recent city history.
The city Planning Commission will hold a public hearing Thursday to review the project and new studies evaluating its effect on the community.
“We’re pursuing opportunities to help ensure our Rohnert Park customers have access to the products they need for their families,” Wal-Mart spokeswoman Rachel Wall said in an email.
Opponents are vowing to wage another all-out battle against the world’s largest retailer two years after they fought to a standstill its plans to add a grocery market and more retail space to its Redwood Drive store.
“We’re digging in for at least another year’s campaign, or more,” said Marty Bennett, co-chairman of the Living Wage Coalition, which was a central player in the previous battle over the proposed expansion.
In 2010, the Planning Commission unanimously rejected an earlier version of the environmental report for the project. That vote came amid a furious citywide debate, which drew opponents and supporters from around the county, over Wal-Mart’s labor practices and whether the superstore would boost the economy and offer more low-cost shopping alternatives or drive smaller competitors out of business.
Soon after, the City Council overturned the commission’s ruling on a 4-1 vote, saying the expansion conformed to the city’s general plan and its benefits outweighed potential negative impacts.
Opponents, some of whom had worked successfully to block an earlier Wal-Mart plan to open a Santa Rosa store in Roseland, then sued.
Superior Court Judge Rene Chouteau in 2011 ordered parts of the environmental report dealing with traffic and noise to be redone. But he also handed the city a victory, dismissing the lawsuit’s key complaint that the council was not authorized to approve the project.
He did not address a central argument against the superstore: That it would violate the city’s general plan.
That line of attack is still valid, said Scot Stegeman, a Sebastopol land-use and planning consultant who argues that Wal-Mart is incorrectly maintaining it is a neighborhood-serving store like any other.
“They’re treating it like one big neighborhood because everybody can drive and everybody has access to it,” Stegeman said. “In fact, the city’s general plan says neighborhoods are supposed to have local shopping centers and supermarkets specifically so you don’t have to drive to them.”
Others against the superstore proposal say Wal-Mart has the option to open a smaller store elsewhere in the city, a business strategy it has pursued in other cities. That would be a better fit for the city and also with the general plan, said Roger Carrillo of Rohnert Park.
“We don’t need another low-cost grocery store in Rohnert Park, unless they want to go into another neighborhood that’s underserved,” Carrillo said. “It’s just sucking as much money out of the community as they can. It’s nothing to do with creating jobs or sales tax revenue for Rohnert Park.”
Chouteau’s ruling set the stage for Wal-Mart to renew its application, which seeks to add 35,256 square feet to its 131,532-square-foot store. The company says it wants to update the 20-year-old store to better serve customers.
“Grocery is an area that customers have come to expect from Wal-Mart because they know it’s an area where we can offer a broad assortment at an affordable price,” Wall said.
City staff has recommended approval of the revised environmental report. The report does not include new mitigation measures because the analysis concluded there were no additional impacts beyond those originally identified, said planning and building manager Marilyn Ponton.
But the report includes new language “clarifying” the sections on traffic and noise impacts, she said.
“The actual analysis was found lacking (by Chouteau), so we clarified it and added additional analysis,” Ponton said. “Now we feel that we have addressed what the judge’s ruling required.”
Opponents say the new environmental report is as inadequate as its predecessor.
“There have been minimal changes,” said Bennett of the Living Wage Coalition.
Originally scheduled for a December hearing, the issue was postponed at Wal-Mart’s request. That pleased opponents, who said the original hearing was scheduled too quickly.
Vice Mayor Joe Callinan, one of the four council votes to overturn the 2010 commission decision, said his position is the same.
“Am I still for it? Absolutely,” he said.
Councilman Jake Mackenzie, the sole council vote to uphold the commission’s decision, said he has not reviewed the revised report.
“I’m waiting to hear the deliberations of the Planning Commission and then I’ll see if I have any reason to change my previously held opinion,” Mackenzie said.
In 2010, he opposed the project, in part, he said, because the report did not prove the store would provide a “diverse array of jobs to … residents,” as the general plan calls for.
The council makeup has shifted since that vote, in a way that might stiffen opponents’ hopes. Amy Ahanotu, one of the commissioners who voted against the Wal-Mart plan then, is now a council member.
But Ahanotu, who on the council has advocated for making Rohnert Park more business friendly, has declined to comment on the Wal-Mart project’s return.
One rallying point for opponents of the project has since vanished. Pacific Market, which at the time had said it would likely close if the Wal-Mart expanded, shut its doors in 2011, blaming poor sales.
You can reach Staff Writer Jeremy Hay at 521-5212 or firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @jeremyhay.