Groups sue to block Rohnert Park Wal-Mart expansion

Foes of a Wal-Mart Supercenter have sued Rohnert Park, challenging the City Council's approval in August of the company's application to expand in its Redwood Drive location.

In the lawsuit, the Sierra Club and Sonoma County Conservation Action argue that the council's decision effectively violated the land use policies outlined in the city's general plan, which calls for encouraging supermarkets to be "close to where people live."

The general plan is "essentially a legally binding document, it's almost like a constitution for the city, and the City Council doesn't have the right to abrogate it," said Rick Luttmann, a Sonoma State University professor and a Sonoma County Conservation Action member.

The suit, filed in Sonoma County Superior Court, also charges that the council decided incorrectly that the project's environmental impacts were offset by its benefits.

The council's decision, on a 4-1 vote with Councilman Jake Mackenzie opposed, overturned an earlier unanimous vote in which the city's Planning Commissioner rejected the application.

"We felt that the Planning Commission was on the right track when they denied the project," said Denny Rosatti, executive director of Sonoma County Conservation Action, an environmental advocacy group.

"We just feel that the City Council did not do the citizenry justice," Rosatti said. "So we're going to take it to the courts and see if they agree with us, we feel pretty confident that we feel our case is strong."

Wal-Mart, which has been in Rohnert Park at its present location for close to 20 years, wants to add a 32,000 square foot grocery.

Lawyers for the city did not respond to phone calls seeking comment Wednesday. But Vice-Mayor Gina Belforte said she wasn't surprised.

"It was anticipated only from the standpoint that someone had e-mailed me before we even voted saying there would be one if we didn't vote to uphold the Planning Commission's decision," she said.

Wal-Mart representatives said they were disappointed in the action by opponents and that consumers will suffer as a result.

"It's unfortunate that the opposition has filed a lawsuit to delay the project and us from moving forward with the project that the community wants and needs," said Wal-Mart spokeswoman Angela Stoner.

"The project meets all requirements by the city and we've done everything that's legally required of us," Stoner said.

She said that under the company's agreement with Rohnert Park, it will fund the city's legal fees.

The plaintiff's legal services are being provided by lawyers retained by the San Francisco-based California Healthy Communities Network, a community organizing group that was active in efforts to convince the council to reject Wal-Mart's application.

Phil Tucker, the group's project director, said stores such as Wal-Mart have a ripple effect on local economies, putting smaller competitors out of business, and, by increasing traffic, on the environment.

"Many of these big box stores are intruding into areas that are very fragile," he said. "We're very, very concerned about general plans, urban sprawl, and also about things that can weigh on creating blight, urban decay," he said.

In 2009, a coalition of groups opposed to a Wal-Mart planned for Roseland won a courtroom challenge of the Santa Rosa City Council's approval of the environmental impact report on the project, leading the company to end its bid five years after announcing its plans.