RP planners OK Walmart expansion
Proposal awaiting council approval
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By Jud Snyder  February 1, 2013 12:00 am

Rohnert Park’s Planning Commission approved on a 3-1 vote a revised Environmental Impact Report from Walmart to expand their facility into a “super store” and be open 24 hours a day. The action took place Thursday evening, Jan. 24, in a packed city council chambers with extra spectator seating in the city hall lobby watching the telecast.

RP Planning and Building Director Marilyn Ponton’s staff report favored acceptance of the revised Walmart EIR.

Planning Commissioner David Armstrong made the motion to approve the revised EIR, with Gerard Guidice and Chairwomen Susan Adams joining him. Commissioner John Borba voted “no,” and Commissioner Susan Haydon was absent. They also voted on two related resolutions dealing with architectural design and a sign program. Both of these votes were unanimous 4-0 approvals.

The public hearing started at 7:10 p.m. and was adjourned at 9:45 p.m. after nearly 40 speakers had their two-minute time slots. A majority of the speakers wore badges signifying their viewpoint, pro or con. Walmart proponents’ badges merely said “Jobs.” Foes had more ornate orange and green badges. An informal tally of the comments had 22 against Walmart and 17 in favor. A few speakers yielded their time slots so a fact-laden expert could talk for six minutes.

Borba said he expected the decision in Walmart’s favor will be appealed to the city council. If the council accepts the planning commission’s decision, the next appeal resource would be Sonoma County Superior Court.

Last Thursday night’s meeting was restricted to the agenda, including the revised EIR, architectural review and sign program, Chairwoman Adams reminded the audience. Criticizing Walmart’s employment policies such as too many part-time workers, low wages, lack of health plans or retirement benefits for about half their workers and negative impacts on small businesses due to the company’s tactics, were not discussed by the commission.

But the vast majority of the nearly 40 speakers did so.

Defending Walmart was Amelia McLear, senior public affairs manager, who cited company policies in improving wages, hiring more women who were promoted to department managers and contributions to community benefit causes.

Typical argument against the expansion came from Marty Bennett, history instructor at SRJC and a member the Living Wage Coalition.
“Since more than 50 percent of employees quit during their first year, half of all Walmart workers earn entry level wages of less than $10 an hour. At least a third of all Walmart workers are part time and work less than 28 hours a week,” Bennett said.

The planning commissioners quartet seemed to assume their decision would be appealed to the city council. In last year’s debate on the Walmart issue, the planners rejected company plans, but the city council overturned their vote. It would be a surprise if the council overturned this newest vote.

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