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A bid by Wal-Mart to open what would be Sonoma County's first Supercenter by adding a grocery to its Rohnert Park store was hanging in the balance late Thursday night as opponents and supporters argued their case before the City Council.

"The only way Wal-Mart could conceivably offer any monetary benefit to Rohnert Park would be by cannibalizing the economies of the surrounding communities," Healdsburg resident Robert Neuse said.

Thomas Thunderhorse, a Rohnert Park resident who described himself as a low-income senior, said the council's decision would have political consequences.

"If this council votes for the expansion of Wal-Mart, it will show those people in need that you care for them," he said. "If you vote against it, you will be remembered by them."

As hundreds of people flooded City Hall, the world's biggest retailer called on the council to overturn the planning commission's rejection of its application. Commissioners had expressed concern about the impact on other grocery retailers and said the project would be inconsistent with a section of the city's general plan that calls for encouraging supermarkets to be "close to where people live."

Wal-Mart attorneys on Thursday argued that the commission and opponents were legally in the wrong.

"The law does not require you to be consistent with every aspect of the general plan, it requires you to be in harmony with the general plan," said Miriam Montesinos, a San Francisco attorney representing the Bentonville, Ark.-based company.

"If you interpret those policies the way they are asking you to, basically you would have a mandatory prohibition on new development in Rohnert Park," she said.

Wal-Mart representatives also said that the expansion would allow the store to broaden the low-cost shopping alternative it offers residents of the city and surrounding area.

"We've helped families stretch their dollar by providing access to a wide range of affordable, quality goods," said Angela Stoner, a Wal-Mart spokesman.

Opponents argued that the expansion would, among other ill effects, cause neighborhoods to decay by forcing competing businesses to go under.

"It's going to change the nature of the north part of Rohnert Park, and we don't want it," said Nancy Atwell, a Rohnert Park resident who lives near the Mountain Shadows Shopping Center on Golf Course Drive.

The anchor tenant of that center, Pacific Market -- one of a three-store Sonoma County grocery chain -- is at risk of going out of business if the Wal-Mart expansion goes through, according to the environmental impact report prepared for the project. That, project opponents said, would drive other tenants of the center out of business, too.

"If this happens, Pacific Market will surely close, and it will be like a deck of cards with one after another beginning to close," said Steven King, a nearby resident.

Before the meeting, a 10-piece band played bouncy tunes to rally opponents of the project, and Pacific Market employees offered deli sandwiches for free.

But once the proceedings got under way, the mood turned deadly serious.

Rohnert Park resident Suzanne Dewey said the council should overturn the commission's decision in order to support residents who voted for Measure E -- the half-cent sales tax measure city voters approved in June -- and are struggling to get by in a touch economy.

"Our residents voted to increase our taxes to help Rohnert Park, now we expect our City Council to help our residents gain more purchasing power," she said.

Another Rohnert Park resident, John Knapp, said that Wal-Mart, because of its sheer size and business practices, undermines the nation's small-business backbone.

"When Wal-Marts move into a community, they suck the life out of it," Knapp said. "Mom-and-pop places built America, and Wal-Mart destroys them by sucking the prices so low nobody can compete."

Perhaps 250 people attended the special meeting, crowding the City Council chamber, the City Hall lobby where it was being televised, and outside the building, where it was being broadcast as well.

By 11 p.m., the crowd had not diminished. The argument was framed, often passionately, in several ways:

As a battle to endorse American principles of free market competition and consumer choice;

As a referendum on the council's support of lower income residents;

As a fight in support of an economy built more around local businesses than giant corporations;

As a choice between developing businesses and housing along the planned SMART line alongside Highway 101 or contributing to increased traffic and greenhouse gases by forcing people to drive farther to meet their shopping needs.

"I believe as Americans we need to extend to Wal-Mart the privilege of expanding as they want to do," said Bunny Kimball of Rohnert Park.

"The decision you're making tonight is really a very major policy decision, and it's speaking of where your loyalty lies," said Jan Ogren, a Rohnert Park resident who said she wants to know that the city supports local businesses before moving hers there from Santa Rosa.

Crystal Roberts of Santa Rosa told the council: "Those that are opposed to it can probably very well afford to go to those other stores," mentioning Pacific Market, Raley's, Safeway and Oliver's Market.

Dennis Rosatti, executive director of Sonoma County Conservation Action, one of a loose coalition of activist groups opposing the project, said the expansion would hinder efforts to develop small businesses, affordable housing and bicycle and foot traffic along Highway 101 on the planned SMART route.

"The more you expand that site (Wal-Mart's Redwood Drive location) the less likely it will become that we can transform that site in the long haul," he said.

The expanded store, as proposed, would be about 167,000 square feet. Most of the addition would be groceries, but some more general merchandise also would be sold, according to the company.

In its campaign for the support of the council and residents, Wal-Mart said the expansion would add 85 new full- or part-time jobs to its existing payroll of 300.

Opponents, citing a study commissioned by Pacific Market and prepared by Sonoma State University's Center for Regional Economic Analysis, countered that those jobs would be low-wage jobs and that the expansion would cost between 105 and 211 jobs.

Staff Writer Jeremy Hay can be reached at 521-5212 and jeremy.hay@pressdemocrat.com.

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