RP planners OK Walmart expansion
Superstore foes likely to appeal to the city council
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By By Jud Snyder  August 22, 2014 12:00 am

It was standing room only in City Hall when Rohnert Park’s Planning Commission met Thursday, Aug. 14, to debate and ultimately vote on Walmart’s plan to enlarge its store at the upper end of Redwood Drive at Millbrae Avenue into a “superstore.”

The commission had three resolutions from Marilyn Ponton, development services manager, to approve or reject. All three were approved by votes 4-1, 5-0 and 5-0. The only negative vote was Susan Haydon’s contention the unavoidable traffic mitigation plan in the EIR was insufficient. The three resolutions were certifying the revised Environmental Impact Report, approving site plan and architectural review and approving a sign program.

A total of 31 speakers from the public trooped to the microphone. They were limited to 2 minutes by Commission Chairman Gerard Giudice. More than 50 speaker cards were submitted, but some didn’t speak because their points were already made by others. They were almost totally against approving the Walmart expansion. Only two members from the public spoke in favor of it, but seven present or former Walmart employees spoke up in favor the expansion.

Walmart’s present size is 131,252 sq. ft. on 13 acres of property. They want to add 35,256 sq. ft. for a new total of 166,788 sq. ft., to create their superstore. They are already remodeling the former Pacific Market on Golf Course Drive. But this project wasn’t part of their proposal presented August 14.

“Walmart’s only doing what other companies are doing,” said Sue Dewey in a lukewarm approval.

Dan Kerbein, of the Sierra Club, said, “Walmart’s not encouraging the walkability factor. Everybody has to drive their cars to shop here. We are against it.”

Said Tony Wright, of the Living Wage Coalition, “Walmart’s low wages and no benefits means its employees cannot afford to live in Sonoma County.”

Nancy Atwell of RP said, “I don’t want Walmart to own my section of town.”

Speakers from Sonoma County Conservation Action, Affordable Housing Coalition, Jobs With Justice and others spoke against the superstore idea, many of them familiar to planning commission members when similar issues are up for debate. The only group in favor was the RP Chamber of Commerce.

Not all the comments were about Walmart’s low salaries and benefits paid to employees. Several speakers contended Rohnert Park already has plenty of supermarkets, and a big Walmart superstore would force marginal supermarkets to quit business and lay off their workers. Delia Garcia, Walmart spokeswoman said, “Small businesses in a town with a superstore tend to benefit from the traffic a big box store generates.”

Other speakers wondered why RP was picked for a superstore when Santa Rosa is five times the larger city. The truth is the political powers in Santa Rosa were never in favor of a Walmart. In fact, the only other Walmart in Sonoma and Marin counties is located in Windsor. Their first entry into North Bay counties was in October 1992 with the RP store.

Walmart said in the staff report it would hire 85 more full- and part-time workers to the superstore. Opponents contended smaller supermarkets would have to close and lay off more than 85 experienced workers. 

“We all know this city (RP) cannot support a huge store like this one,” said one vocal member of the public. “All kinds of people will be coming here to shop who are not residents.”

Naturally, that’s what the city wants: more visitors to RP to increase sales tax revenues and then visit local restaurants, beauty shops and specialty boutiques already existing. 

An appeal to the planners will no doubt be filed, and then it will once again be the city council’s turn. They approved it four years ago but a court’s decision overturning the original EIR delayed the project.

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