Big-box debate ruffles Atascadero



Enveloped in turmoil for much of 2006 over a hotly contested effort to shepherd a Wal-Mart Superstore into town, the City of Atascadero finally carried the topic into 2007.

Not two months after a tide-turning November election shifted control of the council to box-store opponents, the city unveiled on Jan. 23 a strategy and timeline for banning outright establishments of a certain size and appearance generally, those of the Wal-Mart ilk. With the room packed and rustling, the most significant public meeting in Atascadero since that election opened with a prayer.

"At this meeting tonight there will be many voices," minister Tom Gaddis said on behalf of a group of local congregations. "I pray in those voices may [God's] wisdom be heard."

The voices assembled took many forms, but largely dealt with the same topic: a staff report analyzing the mechanics of big-box bans in other California cities and how they can be applied in Atascadero. The report highlighted potential legal pitfalls of drafting an ordinance, suggested routes to avoid expensive lawsuits, and set a target date for full implementation by May 24, 2007.

The paperwork set a fresh tone for the new year and one opposite of the previous council under former mayor Tom O'Malley.

"I think collectively you see a city council that's more careful and conscious of development particularly this kind of mega development," recently elected councilman Mike Brennler said after the meeting.

Free enterprise advocates, however, came out in strong opposition to the suggested ordinance. Several speakers called the caveat unfair and raised concerns of scaring away future developers of any sort.

"The town needs an income stream," said citizen Mike Jackson. "The Rottman Group and Wal-Mart brought that to the table, and now it appears that we've run them off."

Rottman Group exec Keith Mathias reported that several prospective tenants have withdrawn their letters of intent to sign with the annex since the controversy began. He said he was encouraged by the diversity of speakers at the latest city event.

"The meeting was pretty well attended. It was good to see the people actually for something come out," Mathias said. "A big-box ordinance would circumvent that kind of discussion."

Proponents of the ban believe that the installation of a Wal-Mart will negatively impact local businesses, including the grocery outlets that currently anchor commerce along El Camino Real. Paso Robles, Arroyo Grande, and both the city and county of San Luis Obispo have big-box ordinances in some form on the books.

The ordinance proposal drew tentative support from the restructured board at least enough to continue analysis on possible ban mechanics. Mayor George Luna initially led the charge. Board member Jerry Clay expressed that he felt the ordinance would brand Atascadero as unfriendly to growth, while former mayor O'Malley took no position.

Two days after the Jan. 23 meeting, Luna withdrew his support, citing a public opinion rift and the heavy legal costs associated with defending the ordinance.

"After several sleepless nights, I am reconsidering my support for the direction given to staff," Luna said in a written statement. He was unavailable for follow-up comment as of press time. "Tuesday's long meeting showed the division in the community caused by even the consideration of such an ordinance."

Luna's allies on the council supported his decision to reconsider, but some Wal-Mart opponents articulated their disappointment.

On the eve of battle, Wal-Mart headquarters shipped a colossal pile of research documents and site plans to city planning staff. On top of the stack was the first formal application for a Wal-Mart supercenter to headline the Rottman Group's planned north-town Annex development.

The proposal to build the 207,000-square-foot retail center on the 26 acres of land purchased by the Arkansas-based corporation last year remains contingent on the city council's rezoning of the block. It must also pass through the appropriate planning bodies before construction can actually commence. Nevertheless, several community leaders found the timing of the application submission odd.

"I'm not sure what kind of posturing was going on," Brennler said. "One has to wonder."

Wal-Mart's public affairs office did not respond to specific inquiries as of publication.


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