Atascadero, CA. Six Year Battle Against Wal-Mart Heads To Court
Since 2006, Sprawl-Busters has posted 13 stories about the citizens' battle in Atascadero, California to keep out a Wal-Mart superstore. The group "Save Atasacadero" has managed to keep the giant project in limbo for six long years. Now the group is fighting a multi-million corporate welfare deal the city has offered Wal-Mart. Here is the latest field report to Sprawl-Busters prepared by Tom Comar, a spokesman for Save Atascadero:
"For the last six years plus, citizens of this small, California Central Coast town have waged a battle against the giant retailer and the significant deleterious impacts such a development brings with it.
The most recent fight by Save Atascadero is focused on the Environmental Impact Report(EIR) that is mandated by the state's California Environmental Quality Act(CEQA) for large commercial projects.
The Project is called the 'Del Rio Road Commercial Area Specific Plan.' It envisions development of two non-contiguous areas totaling approximately 39.3acres located at the intersection of El Camino Real and Del Rio Road in the City of Atascadero.
The Project has two components. The first consists of a Wal-Mart Supercenter of 129,560 square feet, together with two 5,000 square foot commercial outlots and up to 44 multi-family residential units, to be developed on approximately 26.2 acres.
The second consists of approximately 120,900 square feet of various commercial and retail uses and up to 6 new dwelling units to be developed on approximately 13.1 acres by the Rottman Group.
The initial draft Enviromental Impact Report (EIR) was clear. Significant traffic impacts at the intersections of 101 and El Camino with Del Rio Road and their mitigations are the sole responsibility of the project applicants: "Because there would be no impact without the project, the project applicant would be responsible for fully funding and constructing the improvements (EIR 3.11-67,68)."
Wal-Mart sold itself to the city claiming it would pay for all the traffic mitigations required, but has reneged on that promise. Meanwhile the Rottman Group has gone bankrupt, is being sued for fraud by a local bank, and refuses to pay anything for the traffic mitigations.
So, the City recirculated the EIR, and came up with a scheme to publically finance with taxpayers monies the lion share of an unknown cost of the traffic mitigation at the intersection. The real cost will not be known for at least a year, and could range anywhere from $4.5 to $11 million dollars. Because much of the property and the 101/Del Rio interchange is state owned land, Cal Trans, the state transportation agency, must evaluate and assess what will be required and how much it will cost.
The "we will pay our fair share" political catch-phrase tauted by Wal-Mart, in their attempt to weasel out of the EIR's logical conclusions and recommendations, was seen for what it was: shopping for city/taxpayer subsidies. Wal-Mart got it and the the EIR was certified and the project was approved. The EIR also estimated that in the first year that $23.3 million dollars of sales would be lost by local businesses in the sales area and local adjacent communities.
Save Atascadero had no alternative but to seek relief in court. Neither the Atascadero Planning Commission, with the exception of one member, nor the City Council did their "due diligence" in assessing, deliberating, and ensuring that CEQA standards were met by the state-mandated Environmental Impact Report before approving the Project.
Willfully ignoring the testimony of experts and informed citizens, that highlighted insufficiencies, inconsistencies and inaccuracies in the EIR data and the lack of pertinent data, the City Staff, Planning Commission and Council, failed the citizens of Atascadero.
The legal challenge is technical and will be fought out in the court room through the testimony of experts, not in the press or letters to the editor."
What you can do: The one member of the Atascadero Planning Commission who voted against the Wal-Mart project, Leo Colamarino has stated publicly that "The project entails costs and risks for Atascadero that greatly exceed the hopedfor benefits and rewards."
Colamarino explains that the city's taxpayers will be required to pay $2.5 million to improve the Del Rio freeway interchange. "Recovering that money depends on the Annex portion of the project being built," Colamarino says. "That is adoubtful matter, at best."
Five of the Annex's six parcels were acquired through foreclosure last month by the Montecito Bank and Trust Co., from The Rottman Group. "Rottman was Walmart's co-applicant on the project going back to 2006. Since then, it faltered financially, fell out with Walmart and lost all but one of the Annex parcels. So now five Annex parcels are held by a bank and the other is controlled by a disgruntled, insolvent developer. With the economy still stalled, and no white knights or angels around, assuming the Annex will be developed as Rottman planned is unrealistic," Colamarino says. The city plans to take the $2.5 million from its own wastewater fund as a loan.
"Given the sums involved, the irregularity of this inter-agency borrowing, and the various risks, a thorough, written analysis of the issues is the least a city official should have to justify approving such a funny money' transaction, Colamarino notes.
During the hearings, it was projected that annual sales tax revenues of about $320,000 would come from the Wal-Mart project, plus $200,000 from the Annex. "The Wal-Mart/Annex project's limited upside cannot support spending $2.5 million that we don't have, raiding the wastewater fund and exposing the city to risks of major financial loss and protracted litigation," Colamarino explains. "Approval of it in its current form does not withstand analysis. The public's money is not for gambling, especially in such large amounts and on such an unsafe bet."
Readers who want more details on the Save Atascadero lawsuit can contact the law firm of M.R. Wolfe & Associates, at: firstname.lastname@example.org