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2009-05-14
Lodi, CA. City Council Approves Wal-Mart by One Vote---Again.

Wal-Mart's got that seven year itch in Lodi, California. The mega-retailer has been trying to squeeze its way into Lodi since 2002. Sprawl-Busters began writing about a Wal-Mart battle in Lodi, California in the summer of 2004. Victory still has not been declared by either side. On December 11, 2008, Sprawl-Busters reported that the Mayor of Lodi, California had cast the critical vote in the early morning hours to support the construction of a huge 216,710 s.f. Wal-Mart supercenter, along with 12 other buildings, as part of a 340,000 s.f. project 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. 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 seven years of lobbying, Wal-Mart has 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 be shut down. 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 stated: "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 Sacramento Bee 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 explained. "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?" As it turns out, the City Council's vote on the EIR was not the end of the fight. On April 9, 2009, Wal-Mart appeared before the Lodi Planning Commission once again, this time for approval of a use permit. After the vote was taken, one commission member told the Lodi News, "I had no idea how the vote would come out. I was shocked." The Commission voted 3-3 on the use permit, causing the motion to fail, and the Lodi Shopping Center was not approved. Immediately the developer, Darryl Browman, and Wal-Mart, said they would appeal to the City Council again. Two days after the vote, on April 11th, a law firm representing developer sent an e-mail letter stating its intention to appeal the Planning Commission decision. The morning of the City Council vote, opponents charged that one of the city council members should recuse himself, because his wife accepted $1,920 basketball tickets from a Food 4 Less executive who is fighting the proposal. Councilman Phil Katzakian was expected to be the third vote Wal-Mart needed on the Council. A company called PAQ, Inc. -- which operates the Food 4 Less grocery store in Lodi located across the road from the proposed Supercenter, wrote a letter to the city council complaining about the ticket controversy. "Despite the embarrassment that may result to all involved, the company believes it prudent and necessary to disclose this matter in the midst of the appeal process before the Council," PAQ, Inc. wrote. "PAQ, Inc., encourages the Councilmember to avoid the potential conflict and excuse himself from voting on the appeals." But Lodi's city attorney ruled that state regulations bar a public official whose immediate family member accepts a gift from voting on a matter if the official has possession of the gift, uses the gift or enjoys the benefits of the gift. "At this point, it seems like a tough sell for a conflict issue," the city' lawyer ruled. Later that evening, the Lodi Wal-Mart got its second City Council approval, on an expected 3-2 vote. The City Council -- by one vote -- once again overruled its own Planning Commission. According to the Stockton Record, the project now has to go before the San Joaquin County Judge who rejected the 2005 environmental report for the project. The newspaper said that city leaders expect another round of court battles to ensue. By one vote, Wal-Mart has stayed alive, but its project is still stuck in Lodi again.

What you can do: Before he voted on Wal-Mart's EIR, 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." 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 now that the City Council has voted in favor of the use permit. The group stopped the project once in court, and is responsible for getting Wal-Mart stuck for seven long years. Readers are urged to email Lodi Mayor Larry Hansen at lhansen@lodi.gov with the following message: "Dear Mayor Hansen, your key vote to approve the Wal-Mart use permit -- 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? By one vote, your Council has again voted to overturn the vote of your Planning Commission to approve this huge project. A 340,000 s.f. scale is too big for Lodi. Wal-Mart recently took two of its existing stores in Milwaukee, Wisconsin and turned them into supercenters without adding one foot to the building. This could be done in Lodi, and all the controversy would be over. No permits would be needed, no litigation filed. This is the kind of leadership the Mayor's office could provide. Show Wal-Mart how to stop being stuck in Lodi again. Creating a dead store across the street, and shutting down the Food 4 Less adds no value to your city economically. By letting Wal-Mart dominate your growth agenda, you have wasted 7 years of valuable time that could have been used to create a vision for the future of Lodi, instead of another chain store mall."










 
 
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