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2008-12-11
Lodi, CA. Mayor Gives Wal-Mart A One-Vote Margin

The Mayor of Lodi, California cast the critical vote in the early morning hours of December 11th to support the construction of a huge Wal-Mart supercenter in his city. The City Council took 3 hours of testimony -- and 4 hours of its own deliberations -- before voting to approve the controversial project on a squeaker 3-2 vote. Mayor Larry Hansen predicted the day before the vote that "half the town is not going to be speaking to me anymore." And with good reason: the Mayor made no effort to try to reach a win/win with for residents and developers. Instead, the Mayor backed the development as proposed -- and threw his own Planning Commission under the bus at the same time. On October 8, 2008, Sprawl-Busters reported that Wal-Mart was getting desperate in Lodi. This Wal-Mart project was originally proposed in September of 2002, but was not approved until February of 2005 on a 3-1 vote of the City Council. After six years of lobbying, Wal-Mart had yet to begin work on its proposed supercenter. On February 16, 2007, a San Joaquin County judge overturned the city of Lodi's approval of the Wal-Mart Supercenter. The judge ruled that the company's environmental impact report (EIR) failed to take into account the impact of other Wal-Mart stores and energy consumption. In response to a lawsuit filed by the group Lodi First in March, 2005, the judge ruled that the city's EIR left out how the new supercenter would affect Lodi, given the fact that there are already two other Wal-Mart supercenters nearby. The proposed Wal-Mart supercenter would be built right across the street from an existing Wal-Mart, which would close. The city said it would charge Wal-Mart a "downtown impact fee" at $4.50 per square foot, which would generate just over $1 million. Officials said this money would be used for new business loans, employee training, and other programs to help downtown businesses. Wal-Mart would also be required to compensate for the loss of agricultural land. City planners have suggested a "one-for-one ag easement" plan, in which Wal-Mart would have to preserve one acre of agricultural land for one acre of land converted to commercial use. By October, 2008, Wal-Mart had finally presented its revised plan to the Lodi Planning Commission -- but the Commission rejected the Environmental Impact Report. The Planning Commission voted 5-1 to deny the report, saying more information was needed regarding how the superstore would affect small businesses and grocers in the trade area. Less than a week later, on October 14th, two appeals were filed from the Planning Commission's decision -- one by Wal-Mart, the other by the landowner. The appeal letters states: "City staff and its team of expert consultants have worked on the EIR for over two and a half years. We believe that the EIR complies with the December 19, 2005, Superior Court ruling and that there is substantial evidence in the record to support a finding by the City that the EIR complies with the California Environmental Quality Act." To approve the Wal-Mart, the Lodi City Council had to overrule its own Planning Commission. Lodi Mayor Larry Hansen told The Sacremento Bee this week that he expected the council's vote to end up in court for the second time. "The issue before the City Council is not, 'Do you love or hate Wal-Mart?' " the Mayor said. "They have applied, as they have the legal right to, for building permits and the opportunity to construct a new store." Before the early morning vote, Attorney Bret Jolley, who represents Lodi First, told The Bee: "We're very pleased at this point because the Planning Commission voted 5-1 to refuse to certify the EIR. That's meaningful because you had a supermajority saying, 'We did not have enough information before us to even understand the environmental effects of this project.'" After the Council allowed Wal-Mart to squeak by, Mayor Hansen was quoted as saying, "Tonight is not the finish line." He was referring to his earlier predictions that regardless of how the Council vote went, the decision would be challenged in court. "If I were Wal-Mart," Hansen said, "I'd say what does it take to get our project dealt with the same way Lowe's and Target and other projects are handled?" But the citizens of Lodi might also be asking: "What does it take to get the Council to stand up to big corporations and listen to their own constituents and Planning Commission?"

What you can do: The 'finish line' the Mayor referred to could be his own term in office. Hansen's term as Mayor expires in 2009. He may not have the people of Lodi behind him if he runs as the Mayor who rammed through another Wal-Mart. The Wal-Mart finish line has not been crossed either. The project now must go back to the Planning Commission for final action on two issues: a use permit for the supercenter and for the 36-acre Lodi Shopping Center it will anchor. The Mayor said he had received nearly 300 e-mails and voicemails -- evenly divided on the issue. One of those emails was from Sprawl-Busters. The Mayor's form response was as follows: "Thank you for taking the time to express your opinion on the Wal Mart Super Center, I have heard from hundreds of Lodi citizens on this matter and I can tell you that there are strong feelings on both sides of this issue. Please rest assured that I am studying this issue very carefully. There will be a hearing before the City Council December 10th at 6:30 pm at the Carnegie Forum, I hope you can make it." Local residents might want to seek a copy of those emails from Mayor Hansen under a public records act request. It is highly unlikely that his emails were "evenly divided." City council members Susan Hitchcock and JoAnne Mounce, argued against the store, and said the project would cause the loss of Lodi's unique character. At this point, the citizen's group has not made any statement about pursuing its legal rights. The group stopped the project once in court, and is responsible for getting Wal-Mart "stuck in Lodi again" for six long years. Readers are urged to call Lodi Mayor Larry Hansen at 333-6800 x9280 and then email him at lhansen@lodi.gov with the following message: "Dear Mayor Hansen, your key vote to approve the Wal-Mart superstore -- despite your own Planning Commission's objections to the plan -- was a great disappointment to all the people who had hoped you would try to make this project fit better into the city. The idea of building a Wal-Mart supercenter right across the street from an existing Wal-Mart store is absurd, and environmentally indefensible. This kind of leap-frog sprawl may make sense to Wal-Mart, but it adds no value to the economy of Lodi. You open up a Wal-Mart superstore, and you cut sales and jobs at the Safeway or Food 4 Less. It's just a game of retail musical chairs, with market share shifting. Wal-Mart admits that their current store on West Kettleman is doing fine -- so why create all these negative impacts? Perhaps you would like to make public the emails you received on this project -- the ones you said were 'evenly divided.' If that's true, you are the Mayor of a city that is now divided. You had the opportunity to try to bring people together, and stop the polarization. Instead of challening the developer to come up with a compromise that met opponents half way -- your one vote helped to create a large group of disaffected citizens. This is not leadership, Mr. Mayor, and all you have done for Lodi is create another big empty building that will sit empty for years to come -- longer than you will be Mayor."










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

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