California Communities Embroiled in Supercenter Debates

Date: 1 Nov 2003 | posted in: Retail | 0 Facebooktwitterredditmail

Voters in Contra Costa County, California, will decide in March whether to keep a law banning supercenters from unincorporated areas in the county. Contra Costa County is home to about one million people and lies east of the San Francisco Bay area.

The law, which was approved unanimously by the County Board of Supervisors in June, prohibits stores over 90,000 square feet that devote more than five percent of their floor space to groceries. The measure prevents Wal-Mart and Target from opening supercenters just beyond the borders of cities and towns. These areas are attractive to developers, because of lower land costs and the lack of municipal land use regulations.

Shortly after the ban passed, Wal-Mart spent $100,000 to gather the 27,000 signatures needed to put the measure on the March ballot. The company will likely spend millions on the campaign. It has launched a “Consumer Action Network” to collect residents’ names and phone numbers, and has hired an army of workers to persuade voters to rescind the ban. At $10 an hour, the campaigners earn more than the $8 an hour Wal-Mart pays its supercenter employees.

A variety of labor, environmental, and community organizations have joined forces to convince voters to back the ban. The ordinance’s sponsors, Supervisors Mark DeSaulnier and John Gioia, are leading the campaign. They plan to hold debates, press conferences, and go door to door to reach voters. “We know we will be outspent and we plan to be outspent maybe 4-1. But we hope to raise $1 million,” DeSaulnier told the Tri-Valley Herald.

Supporters of the ban are focusing primarily on land use issues—the loss of open space, the large volumes of traffic generated by grocery-department store combinations, and the fact that groceries are nontaxable, leaving the public to pay for the additional road maintenance costs.

“It’s also about Contra Costa County—not Wal-Mart executives in Bentonville, Arkansas—having the right to make its own decisions about local planning,” said Supervisor Gioia.

Wal-Mart is aiming to steer the referendum away from community issues and turn it into an anti-union campaign. “So-called land-use arguments are nothing more than a way to try to divert the real issues, which is that this is being driven by [supermarket] unions,” said company spokesperson Amy Hill.

Wal-Mart hopes that by winning the referendum it can send a strong message to communities across California, where interest in banning supercenters is on the rise. The state is one of the last frontiers for Wal-Mart supercenters. When the company announced a year ago that it planned to open more than 40 supercenters across California, labor unions and community activists began organizing to block the company’s expansion.

In November, the Oakland city council voted 7-1 to adopt an ordinance similar to the one in Contra Costa County. Earlier this year, Martinez, the county’s seat, implemented its own ban. Supervisors in Alameda County, which encompasses Oakland, are also considering a ban. As we reported in the July issue of this Bulletin, Los Angles is weighing a measure to require that big box stores pay a living wage.

Voters in two other California cities will face Wal-Mart questions on the March ballot. In San Marcos, about 35 miles north of San Diego, a grassroots group called Citizens for Responsible Development gathered signatures for an initiative to overturn a 3-2 decision by the city council to approve a Wal-Mart supercenter. Wal-Mart tried to have the referendum invalidated by a court, but failed. One city councilor who voted for the store has said he may change his vote when the council reconsiders the matter on Nov. 18, which would effectively cancel the referendum.

In Inglewood, near Los Angeles, Wal-Mart has organized an unprecedented referendum to give voters the power to approve a supercenter that has not yet gone before city officials. If it passes, the initiative would allow the supercenter to go forward without a public hearing, environmental impact study, or any of the other standard review procedures.

The initiative reads, “The reviewing official shall be required to issue the requested permit or permits without the exercise of any discretion and no development standards, criteria, requirements, procedures, mitigations or exactions shall be imposed.” The referendum needs a simple majority to pass, but a two-thirds vote would be required to repeal or amend it.

“This is the most outrageous thing I’ve seen a corporation do in a low-income community,” said Madeline Janis-Aparicio, director of Los Angeles Alliance for a New Economy, which is organizing opposition to the Inglewood supercenter and support for the living wage measure in Los Angeles.


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Stacy Mitchell

Stacy Mitchell is co-director of the Institute for Local Self-Reliance, and directs its Independent Business Initiative, which partners with a wide range of allies to implement policies that counter concentrated power and strengthen local economies.