Milpitas, CA. Wal-Mart Writes Its Own Zoning Laws
If Wal-Mart comes to your town and does not like your zoning code, it will try to write its own meal ticket. The company will hire a land use attorney to write a new ordinance, hire signature collectors to put the issue on the ballot, and then bombard the town with direct mailers and display ads in the newspaper. This is the plan now happening in Milpitas, California.
Sprawl-Busters reported on March 27, 2010 that the Planning Commission in Milpitas had OK'd a proposal submitted by Wal-Mart to expand its existing discount store in the city. A store two times the size of a football field was not big enough for Wal-Mart. The giant retailer decided that its existing discount store in Milpitas, which is 131,725 s.f., neeed to stretch out.
So the retailer approached city officials with a plan to add 18,457 s.f. to its existing store on Ranch Drive. "It's a pretty small expansion," a spokesperson for Wal-Mart told the Milpitas Post, trying to downplay the unnecessary expansion. "It will be a Wal-Mart store with a supermarket."
But for many residents in Milpitas, a 150,182 s.f. store was completely frivolous -- and they urged city officials to make Wal-Mart live within its existing store. But Wal-Mart wanted the extra space to add fresh produce, baked goods, a deli and other grocery items. The issue came to a head in 2010, when the City Council voted not to allow the expansion. The city council said at the time that the increased traffic would be a problem, and that the sales tax added to Milpitas ($70,000) was inconsequential. They also noted that the jobs "created" by Wal-Mart would not be significant.
There are already 7 Wal-Mart stores within 15 miles of this Milpitas location -- none of them supercenters. Wal-Mart has been trying to push supercenters in California, but has run into a Wal of opposition at almost every turn. The retailer claimed that expanding the store would create 85 "additional" jobs, but this is a gross figure that fails to net out the jobs that will be lost elsewhere in the Milpitas trade area, especially at existing grocery stores.
The new Wal-Mart application was initially approached cautiously by then-Mayor Bob Livengood. The Mayor told the Post that he wanted to see more information on the plan before reaching a decision to support it or not. "I'm going to stay open minded until we get more information," the Mayor said. "I want to be fair to them." City officials were also concerned about the impact of another grocery store coming to Milpitas. There already is a Nob Hill, Lucky's, and Safeway in the city.
Ironically, the 'expansion' is not even needed. Wal-Mart has been building 80,000 s.f. supercenters, and converting existing stores the size of the current Milpitas store into supercenters, merely by reformatting the interior of the store, avoiding the need for any zoning permits. Wal-Mart could have avoided this confrontation entirely.
According to the Milpitas Post, there were "hundreds of people" in City Hall at the March 2010 hearing when the Planning Commission voted in favor of the expansion. The Milpitas Coalition for a Better Community was represented at the session, and the crowd was so large not everyone could fit into the Council chamber. The public was not allowed to comment until after 10 p.m., only after Wal-Mart and the city staff presented their case.
One Commissioner said the expansion did not sufficiently deal with the added traffic that would result from a larger store with groceries. A second Commissioner who voted against the plan worried about the alcohol sales and crime in the parking lot late at night. "Would that be a benefit for the community?" the Commissioner asked. "I just don't see the benefit of a 24-hour operation."
But when the City Council voted down the expansion on June 1, 2010, Wal-Mart decided to go directly to the voters to go over the head of the elected officials. Wal-Mart started collecting 4,000 signatures from registered Milpitas voters shopping at its existing store, to push for a special election in the fall. The ballot question will ask voters whether they want to allow Wal-Mart to expand to allow liquor sales, groceries and 24-hour operation.
"We have started signature gathering and are gathering signatures at the store and throughout the Milpitas community," a Wal-Mart spokesperson told The Post. Wal-Mart boasted that it could collect the signatures in less than the 180 days allowed, because of the "overwhelming amount of support the community has shown for our project." It also helps to have paid signature collectors.
The retailer also set up a website to gather signatures on the petition: milpitasconsumersforchoice.com.
As soon as Wal-Mart began to threaten a referendum, city officials started to calculate what it would cost the taxpayers to go through this exercise in grassroots chain store democracy. Wal-Mart's plan will waste a considerable amount of tax dollars on an election that is being sought by business, not a voter. The city clerk has estimated that holding this special election in November at the instigation of Wal-Mart to increase its profits, would cost the taxpayers roughly $215,700. Wal-Mart has not offered to chip in one penny towards the cost of their "corporate democracy."
The existing Wal-Mart in Milpitas has been around since 1994. Wal-Mart has abandoned many discount stores of that vintage already -- usually to build a larger footprint superstore. Wal-Mart claims that the new super-sized Wal-Mart will create sales tax revenue of $790,000 a year. The Milpitas Coalition for a Better Community and the South Bay Labor Council remain opposed to the expansion, which they say will lead to job losses and store closures. Milpitas' new Mayor Jose Esteves says he supports the expansion, and some of the council members who voted No last June are reportedly being wooed over by Wal-Mart.
What you can do: Wal-Mart has written its own zoning ordinance, which it calls "the Milpitas Commercial Specific Plan Area "to assist in the development of a site for the benefit of local shoppers, the general public, and the City of Milpitas."
The plan developed by Wal-Mart would allow them to be approved with only a building permit review, and no other approvals or permits, and would take away resident's right to appeal any decision. It not only gives Wal-Mart the permit it needs -- but disables the communities right to object. A more self-serving ordinance in the country would be hard to find.
Under the Milpitas Commercial Specific Plan, development within the specific plan area that is consistent with the listed development standards, conditions and requirements would be processed through building permit and/or construction plan review and would not require any additional approvals or permits. Such review will be non-discretionary, final actions that cannot be appealed. The ordinance is written to even avoid a public hearing if the project is seen as being in "substantial conformance" with the code.
When this project was being reviewed by the Milpitas Planning Commission, a worker from the Save Mart grocery store told The Post that Wal-Mart would consume jobs in the community -- not create them. "I do feel that the Wal-Mart will have a great impact on myself and my co-workers," the Save Mart employee explained. There are 65 jobs at the Milpitas Save Mart that could disappear if the market does not survive Wal-Mart. "As Wal-Mart has gone into other communities they were able to take away business," the worker explained. "They put other businesses out of business and that's not good."
Readers are urged to help the Milpitas Coalition by sending an email to Mayor Jose Esteves at firstname.lastname@example.org with the following message:
"Dear Mayor Esteves, The 'small' expansion of Wal-Mart brings no added value to your local economy. You will see no net gain in jobs, because according to a study by Retail Forward, for every Wal-Mart superstore that opens, two other grocery stores will close. So this is a net loser for Milpitas.
Don't be lulled by Wal-Mart's claim of 'new' jobs. If you want to find where Wal-Mart jobs come from, go to Save Mart, Safeway, or Lucky's, or any of the smaller merchants that pay their workers more.
Wal-Mart could reformat their store internally without any permits, and could have spared the city the time and expense of processing this plan. As Mayor, you should direct the energies of your office into creating real economic development -- not just retail cannibalism.
The City Council was right to reject this plan last June. It's time now to promote real economic development -- not just shift jobs and revenues from existing cash registers.
Now Wal-Mart is trying to embarrass the community by putting this issue on the ballot, and forcing the city to back down to avoid the cost of an election. The city should ask Wal-Mart to pay for the election, since it is their future profits they are trying to protect. Why should Milpitas taxpayers have to pay for Wal-Mart's profits?