Was Santa Rosa's "food desert" just a mirage?

The City Council passed a law in September making it easier for large grocery stores to open in a section of the city known as a "food desert" because of the limited access to fresh foods.

The measure was billed as creating new jobs, filling vacant buildings and making it easier for low-income residents to shop for food somewhere other than convenience stores.

But last week, the City Council quietly rescinded the law instead of fighting a lawsuit filed against it by the Living Wage Coalition of Sonoma County, which feared companies like Wal-Mart would use the faster process to open a neighborhood grocery with little public input.

The group agreed to drop its suit if the city scrapped the law, which allowed grocery stores to open in existing buildings in the southeast part of the city without a special permit from the Planning Commission.

Mayor Scott Bartley said the city's goal was to trigger new stores to open in the area, and by that measure it succeeded. Smart & Final took advantage of the streamlined approval process under the new law and is planning to open a discount warehouse in the vacant Circuit City space soon.

But Councilman Gary Wysocky, one of three members who voted against the law in September, said he never liked how the law was crafted.

"We corrupted our process," Wysocky said. "We took 12-year-old statistics from the federal government and molded our process just to help this one tenant out. And that's not OK."

Wysocky questioned the census data used by the city to justify creating a more streamlined approvals process for grocery stores in the southeast portion of the city, defined roughly the area between Highway 101 and Petaluma Hill Road. He questioned the designation given that Lola's, Costco and Target all sell groceries in the area.

He also didn't like that the law had the appearance of being written specifically to help one property owner get a new tenant. Commercial real estate broker Tom Laugero, who was working to get Smart & Final into the Santa Rosa Town Center space, petitioned the council to pass the law.

The 4-3 decision in September was contentious and illustrated the ideological divide on the council at that time. The council majority stressed the need to create jobs and reduce the red tape for businesses, while the minority expressed concern about the impact of new groceries on existing businesses and the lack of neighborhood input in future decisions.

You can reach Staff Writer Kevin McCallum at 521-5207 or kevin.mccallum@pressdemocrat.com.