Rohnert Park approves Wal-Mart supercenter expansion

Wal-Mart won its five-year battle to expand its Rohnert Park store into a supercenter following a lengthy and passionate hearing Tuesday where supporters and critics painted starkly different portraits of the world’s largest retailer and predictions about the impacts for the community.

The City Council voted 4-1 to deny two appeals of the Planning Commission’s August decision approving the project. Councilman Jake Mackenzie, who cast the lone vote against the project in 2010, was the sole “no” vote again.

“This is not an easy decision. This is not an easy vote,” Mayor Amy Ahanotu said. “But I hope that at the end of the day that our community will come together and will see … that it was the right thing to do.”

The vote came following an at-times carnival atmosphere at City Hall, with a band playing outside and various environmental, labor and social equity groups handing out cookies and literature outlining their opposition to the project.

It was a standing-room-only crowd inside the chambers. Supporters wearing “Wal-Mart Jobs - Growing our economy” stickers touted the company’s low prices, the 85 jobs the project would create, and the positive working environment for employees.

The project proposes to add 35,000 square feet to the existing Redwood Drive building, bringing it to 172,000 square feet, and to make the store open 24-hours a day.

Wal-Mart employee Chris Simmons refuted the notion that the company doesn’t pay or treat its workers well. He said when he lost his job at State Farm Insurance, his job at Wal-Mart allowed him to remain in his home in Rohnert Park and keep his kids in their good schools.

“My wages actually go back into this community,” Simmons told the council.

Retired apple processing plant worker Ruben Overstreet said he has shopped at the Wal-Mart since it opened 23 years ago. He has little patience for the company’s critics, labeling them “sniveling, crying, mental midgets.” Many are academics who can afford to shop at more expensive stores, he said.

Critics, many wearing “Wal-Mart - Not in our community” stickers, argued that the store would put other local grocers out of business and create low-paying jobs that would result in taxpayers bearing the cost through higher use of public assistance programs.

Many opponents worked at those competing grocery stores and asked the council to consider the impact of their decision on the other businesses.

“We understand this country is built around competition,” said Steve Telucci, an employee at the Food Maxx in southwest Santa Rosa. “But for a store to open with minimal nearby residential support will harm stores like ours.”

David Meja, who also works at Food Maxx, said he’s watched for years as Wal-Mart has put the discount grocer out of business in the Las Vegas area. He said he worries that if the supercenter is approved, his store could be next. He likened Wal-Mart to the villainous banker from the classic film “It’s a Wonderful Life.”

“You guys are looking at Mr. Potter moving in,” Meja said.

But Vice Mayor Gina Belforte said it wasn’t the council’s job to protect local businesses from competition. She noted that there’s a new tire store coming to the city, and while she doesn’t particularly think it’s needed, she’s not going to be asked to vote on it.

“That’s not how our society works here,” Belforte said.

Councilman Joe Callinan offered similar free-market sentiments in his comments. He said it wasn’t his place to tell businesses what to pay or benefits to offer their workers. He gave some blunt advice to the company’s critics.

“This simple solution is, if you don’t like the store don’t shop there,” Callinan said.

The decision comes three months after Wal-Mart opened a neighborhood grocery store on the east side of Rohnert Park. Since that store opened in the Mountain Shadows Shopping Center in October, the need for Wal-Mart to expand its store on the west side of the city to add groceries has waned, said Marty Bennett, co-chair of North Bay Jobs With Justice.

“Why do we need both?” Bennett asked.

Rick Luttman, a retired Sonoma State University math professor who is one of the leaders of the opposition, said expanding the existing Wal-Mart is contrary to the section of the city’s General Plan that encourages neighborhood markets.

“There’s virtually no neighborhood there,” he said.

But city officials noted that there will be more than 1,000 residents living within a mile of the new store in coming years, and therefore the store would be supporting them.

City Attorney Michelle Kenyon called it “very clear” that the project was consistent with the city’s general plan. The language encouraging neighborhood markets being dispersed around the city in no way prohibits big-box stores, she said.

Bennett said he didn’t know how the coalition of groups opposing the expansion would continue their fight, only that they would.

“This is not the end of it,” he said.

The Arkansas-based retailer first floated the idea to expand its Redwood Drive store in 2009, and the City Council approved the project a year later. Environmentalists won a legal challenge in 2011, forcing the city to do a more comprehensive study of the project’s impacts.

The project resurfaced last year after the city circulated an updated environmental impact report, and the Planning Commission approved the proposal in August. That action prompted opponents to appeal the decision to the council, which holds the final say.

You can reach Staff Writer Kevin McCallum at 521-5207 or On Twitter @srcitybeat.

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