Rohnert Park’s decision on Wal-Mart expansion expected Tuesday

The Rohnert Park City Council is expected to make a final decision Tuesday regarding Wal-Mart’s expansion, a proposal that sparked one of the most contentious political battles in the city’s history.

The issue has for years pitted environmentalists and labor groups against free market advocates and supporters of the retailer’s low prices.

The council meeting, which likely will be long, heated and reflective of the five-year legal fight over the project, comes three months after Wal-Mart opened a neighborhood grocery store on the east side of Rohnert Park, a development some say makes its proposed expansion unnecessary. Wal-Mart says the local grocery and the 35,000-square-foot expansion, creating the North Bay’s first “super center” the size of three football fields, serve different community needs.

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.

Groups opposing the Wal-Mart expansion, including those from outside of Rohnert Park, are critical of the world’s largest retailer for its low wages, pricing practices that activists say undercut local merchants and a business model that environmentalists say creates a large carbon footprint.

“This is a five-year campaign,” said Marty Bennett, co-chairman of North Bay Jobs with Justice. “Our objective is to stop the super center. Every day they don’t build is a victory for us.”

For its part, Wal-Mart says the expanded store will create 85 new jobs. The company’s average pay for store employees is $13 per hour, and employees have access to affordable health care plans, said Wal-Mart spokeswoman Delia Garcia. She said that small businesses benefit from the traffic that the big-box store generates.

“Expanding the store is about serving customers better and offering them the convenience of one-stop shopping,” she said. “We’re already serving customers. We’re not talking about a new store here. It’s an opportunity to offer a new option, to serve customers in different ways.”

The City Council includes one new member since it last voted on the issue. Mayor Amy Ahanotu was elected in 2010, after the council had first approved the project, and won re-election this past November. Ahanotu voted against the project while on the Planning Commission in 2010, but said many of his initial concerns have been addressed.

“I had concerns about the project’s impacts,” he said. “I wanted to make sure some of the issues were mitigated. I think they were addressed.”

Council members say they are looking forward to hearing the debate on Tuesday.

“My decision is going to be based on if the project meets the merits of what we are asked to decide,” Councilwoman Gina Belforte said. “My understanding is this is a narrow scope. It’s an interesting dilemma as a politician. I have my own personal beliefs of why I shop at a variety of stores. Where the dilemma comes in is, do my beliefs trump law? I took an oath to uphold the law.”

During the past debate, opponents expressed concern that a Wal-Mart super center would drive local grocery chains out of business. Some say Pacific Market closed in 2011 because of the threat of a super store. The family-owned grocer was located in the Mountain Shadows Plaza building now occupied by the new Wal-Mart neighborhood grocery.

“The process is finally going to come to a conclusion, one way or the other,” said Councilman Jake Mackenzie, who cast the lone council vote against the project in 2010. “The landscape has been altered somewhat since the council last took action.”

You can reach Staff Writer Matt Brown at 521-5206 or On Twitter @MattBrownPD.

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