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2004-11-04
Lodi, CA. Effort to Give Voters A Say In Big Boxes Falls Short.

Measure R on the Lodi, California ballot November 2nd. was defeated by a vote of 10,655 (57.7%) against imposing new restrictions on big boxes, to 7,824 (42.3%) in favor of giving voters a voice over big stores. If Measure R had passed, the city would have been required to bring any project larger than 125,000 s.f. to the voters. The proposed ordinance did not ban large stores -- it only required them to be approved by the voters of Lodi. But apparently business special interests in Lodi, who poured in big bucks to defend big boxes, did not want the people of Lodi to have too much power over their future developments. A 226,868 s.f. Wal-Mart supercenter project is currently waiting to go through hearings, and the developer hopes that the defeat of Measure R will speed up the approval process -- but local big box opponents point out the Measure R would have created a popular vote mechanism, but it did not remove any of the other zoning review rules, including the California State Environmental Quality Review Act (SEQRA). "I have a feeling someone will probably be challenging the environmental report," anti big box activist Betsy Fiske told the Lodi News-Sentinel. A group called the Small City Preservation Committee had placed the initiative on the ballot. Members of the group have vowed to continue the fight, and are willing to use litigation, just as developers often do. The elimination of a popular vote requirement does not change the fact that any large scale project still has to pass environmental, traffic, and other zoning requirements. The head of the Lodi Chamber of Commerce told the newspaper that "it would be rather small of the committee to attack a project currently in the pipeline." What the Chamber fails to understand is that the Small City Preservation Committee was just adding restrictions, not eliminating those already on the books. The developer has submitted an Environmental Impact Report (EIR), which will come before the Lodi Planning Commission on December 3rd. The City Council will have final say on the project. Complicating Wal-Mart's plans is the fact that if a new Wal-Mart supercenter opens, the company has to get rid of its existing Wal-Mart discount store. The city's Community Development Director has said that Wal-Mart would be required the find a tenant for the empty building. The developer admits that Wal-Mart does not have a tenant for the building yet, but has been talking with several national retailers. The News-Sentinel reports that $350,000 was spent on the Measure R campaign, but the paper did not reveal how much of that large sum came from business groups, and how much the citizens raised. The paper admitted Measure R was the "most expensive political effort in the city's history," yet did not reveal how much the developer or Wal-Mart contributed to the effort. In addition to the giant retailers, local car dealerships spent money to oppose the Measure, because they were told that the 125,000 s.f. limit did not apply just to buildings, but to outdoor space, like car dealerships. The proponents of Measure R were angered by the charges that car dealerships would be limited by the size cap/voter ordinance.

What you can do: Local citizens groups are always amazed at how much money the retail corporations and developers will put into these local elections. Such spending has overflowed throughout California, from Encintas and Eureka, to Contra Costa, Huntington Beach, Glendora and San Marcos. These ballot questions essentially look more like bidding contests, where the highest bidder gets the prize. In this election, roughly $19 per vote was spent -- and most of that by the business interests in Lodi, not by the residents. It's hard for a citizen's group to get its message out over the noise that can be made with large corporate spending. It's remarkable that a Wal-Mart project would draw a negative vote of 42% of the people. There is no other retailer in the country that attracts such high negative numbers. As one Wal-Mart spokesman said years ago, "Why all the fuss? We're just a retail store, not a nuclear waste dump." But today, a Wal-Mart store is the retail equivalent of a nuclear waste dump. The residents of Lodi who wanted to give voters the final say, still have the right to fall back on the existing zoning laws -- and not fall prey to the Chamber of Commerce mindset that this referendum means anything goes in Lodi. All Lodi gets out of this project is an empty Wal-Mart discount store, and possibly one or two empty grocery stores. Looks like residents will be "stuck in Lodi, again" with a big box fight just warming up.










 
 
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