Living Wage Coalition sues Santa Rosa over new grocery zoning

  • The old Circuit City store on Santa Rosa Avenue on Friday, November 2, 2012. (Jeff Kan Lee/ The Press Democrat)

Santa Rosa is being sued for its decision to relax zoning rules for large grocery stores that want to set up shop in existing buildings in the city's southeast.

When the City Council passed the zoning changes in September, it said it was trying to remove hurdles for businesses, create jobs and give low-income residents better access to fresh food and vegetables.

The move appears to have had its intended effect.

Warehouse chain Smart & Final plans to occupy the former Circuit City location in the Santa Rosa Town Center on Santa Rosa Avenue, according to the company.

But the Living Wage Coalition of Sonoma County worries that the zoning change will make it easier for out-of-area grocery chains to open with no input from residents or assessment of the impacts on other businesses.

"The food-desert policy approved by the council majority is not about access to healthy food by low income Santa Rosa residents," Julio Soto, a Santa Rosa resident and member of the coalition, said in a release. "It is about giving a landowner a free pass to avoid public scrutiny of a larger grocery store that will undermine the viability of other community shopping centers nearby."

The suit is the latest round in a tussle between those who want to the ease requirements on new businesses and those who worry that doing so will limit the input neighborhoods will have over such projects.

The council made two significant changes to the city's zoning rules for grocery stores this year.

In June it allowed small grocery stores to locate in any commercial district without a use permit. It also gave the same right to large or small grocery stores seeking to locate downtown. Waiving the use permit requirements eliminates the public hearing process on the merits of such projects.

Large grocery stores (those over 20,000 square feet) also were allowed to locate outside the 17 "community shopper centers" designated in the city's General Plan with a use permit.

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