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2008-09-27
Del Norte County, CA. Citizen Group Sues County Over Wal-Mart Expansion

On August 9, 2008, Sprawl-Busters reported that Wal-Mart was in the middle of a controversial plan to expand its existing discount store into a superstore in Del Norte County. The 14.25-acre project site is located in the western portion of unincorporated Del Norte County, just north of the limits of Crescent City. The proposed project would expand the existing 83,902 s.f. Wal-Mart store into a 170,126 s.f. supercenter. In the Environmental Impact Review (EIR) on this project, the consultants for the county examined a "30% Reduction Alternative" which the consultant said "is the environmentally superior alternative." It reduces the store to 119,000 s.f. In the EIR, the following issues were identified as controversial: Aesthetics and Visual Character; Construction and Operational Air Emissions; Greenhouse Gas Emissions; Construction and Operational Noise; Parking; Public Services; Traffic Congestion; Urban Decay; Wastewater; Water Supply. An economic impact report done on the project by Bay Area Economics of Emeryville, California in September of 2007 concluded: "The Proposed Project may lead to the closure of one of the three existing major supermarkets in Crescent City. However, because of a variety of factors, including different 'break-even' and profit thresholds for different operators, as well as different levels of sales currently, it is not possible to state with reasonable certainty which of these stores is most likely to be impacted to the point of closure by the Proposed Project. The Trade Area is characterized by isolation, weak economic conditions, and very slow household population increases, limiting the prospects for future retail growth. As a result, a vacated space such as a supermarket may prove difficult to retenant. Cumulatively, the only other sizable proposed retail project in the Trade Area is a Walgreen's in Crescent City. In combination with the proposed Wal-Mart expansion, this project puts an existing drug store at risk of closure. A vacated space may also be difficult to re-tenant, although as a smaller space it might not face as much difficulty as a vacated supermarket." Despite this gloomy economic picture, the Del Norte County Planning Commission approved the Wal-Mart expansion on June 4th . That decision was appealed to the Del Norte Del Norte County Board of Supervisors by the Crescent City Heritage Coalition, which states that the public brought up several issues, such as environmental concerns, traffic, global warming and urban decay, that were not fully addressed in the EIR. "The level of detail in an EIR's analysis must correspond to an impact's severity and likelihood of occurrence," the Coalition wrote. The group asked the supervisors to decertify the EIR and send it back to the Planning Commission for further review. "Specifically, the EIR needs to trace cause and effect through anticipated economic and/or social changes from the Project to physical changes in the environment," the Coalition wrote. The group also charged that changes in the environment from the expansion were not adequately addressed in the EIR, it is therefore not in compliance with the California Environmental Quality Act. The Coalition says a significant effect of the supercenter would be urban decay from the closures of existing grocery stores and pharmacies. According to the group, five supermarkets in the county are competing for about $50 million a year in sales and the Wal-Mart supercenter will capture about $16 million in sales away from the other grocery stores. Wal-Mart claims, however, that it will capture more than $7 million in retail leakage currently going outside of Del Norte county. The economic impact study found that there were 6 competing grocery stores in the trade area, with 160,000 sf. of existing grocery store space. The study confirmed that Wal-Mart would capture $6.6 million in sales leakage out of the county -- but it also concluded that the Wal-Mart would capture $17.6 million from existing merchants in the trade area, with $16.3 million of that coming from other grocery stores. The Wal-Mart as a whole would have $62.4 million in annual sales in 2009, of which $6.8 million came from leakage (11%), $17.6 million (28%) from existing merchants, and $38 million (61%) from the existing Wal-Mart discount store. Sales transferred from existing merchants will be 2.6 times greater than new sales from captured leakage. According to the Daily Triplicate newspaper, Wal-Mart says their expansion is "not likely to have any significant impacts leading to vacancies of any of these stores." The citizen's group also charges that the EIR did not address how water runoff from the Supercenter would affect wildlife in a nearby tributary of Elk Creek. On August 12th, the County Board of Supervisors voted 3-1 to approve Wal-Mart's expansion proposal, and grant it a conditional use permit. This week, the Crescent Heritage Coalition announced that Wal-Mart's plans will not lead to a ribbon-cutting -- but to court. The group has retained Attorney Paul Hagen of Eureka, California. The lawsuit calls "inadequate" the Environmental Impact Report. "The EIR was defective in certain ways and the analysis was inadequate in certain ways," Hagen told The Triplicate newspaper. The lawsuit asks that the county fix the deficiencies in the EIR and "consider a new and legally adequate EIR that complies with CEQA (the California Environmental Quality Act)." The litigation notes that water runoff from the existing Wal-Mart building goes into a tributary of Elk Creek, and that runoff will increase if the store is expanded. Elk Creek contains federall protected fish species, such as coho salmon, steelhead trout, cutthroat trout and chinook salmon. The EIR "failed to disclose, analyze or mitigate off-site impacts" to Elk Creek. The EIR also failed to respond to the California Department of Fish and Game's concerns about Elk Creek. A letter from DFG to the county said a proposed 50-foot setback from the creek was inadequate. The citizen's group also charges that the analysis of "urban decay" caused by closed stores was "not supported by substantial evidence" and that more than one store will close. The suit says the EIR inadequately examined changing traffic patterns, and did not review greenhouse gas issues and impact of superstore emissions on global warming. The county's lawyer indicated little concern over the lawsuit. "We think that the EIR was adequate," the county's lawyer said. "From what I've heard of the allegations, they don't seem to be judicially sound." Wal-Mart agreed that the county did a good job on the report. "At this point, we're evaluating the lawsuit and we're confident in county staff and the decisions made by the Planning Commission and Board of Supervisors," a Wal-Mart spokesman told The Triplicate. Nevertheless, the citizen's lawsuit has put the project on hold.

What you can do: The original Wal-Mart store was built in 1992. The Del Norte Planning Commission approved the expansion plans as submitted. The main item they asked the architect to do was a "slight redesign" that would add more wood and stonework to the fašade. The new design was then approved. Readers are urged to email David Finigan, the Chairman of the Del Norte County Board of Supervisors, at dfinigan@co.del-norte.ca.us with the following message: "Chairman Finigan, It's a shame that your own constituents have had to take the Wal-Mart case to court. If you read the economic impact report for the proposed Wal-Mart expansion, you will see that $17.6 million in sales at the expanded supercenter will come from merchants already operating in Del-Norte -- 93% of that from existing grocery stores. That's roughly 2.6 times more than what this store will pull back from sales leaking out of the county. In addition to the serious environmental concerns that have been raised by the Crescent City Heritage Coalition, keep in mind the economics here. All you are doing is shifting market share to Wal-Mart, and giving them more control over your local retail market. You already have other Wal-Marts nearby. This is not economic development, this is economic displacement. I urge you to consider the deficiencies in the EIR raised by the lawsuit, and send it back to the Planning Commission for supplemental review. It says in your EIR that a smaller store is environmentally preferable. Ask the Commission to focus on a smaller footprint for this store. Wal-Mart says they now favor supercenters at 90,000 s.f. They don't need a 170,126 s.f. store in your county. Let them reformat the store they've got, into a supercenter -- it's already bigger than 1.5 football fields. This litigation could have been avoided with a little dialogue between the county and its citizens. But you can still show leadership by going to Wal-Mart and asking them to shrink the size and impact of their project."










 
 
"Norman has become the guru of the anti-Wal-Mart movement" ~ 60 Minutes

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