Voters in five California cities—Agoura Hills, Mountain View, Reedley, Calexico, and East Palo Alto—went to the polls Tuesday to consider measures on big box development.
AGOURA HILLS: In Agoura Hills, a town of 20,000 north of Los Angeles, voters banned retail stores larger than 60,000 square feet. The measure bars the city from allowing any exceptions to the ordinance; variances can only be granted by voters.
Citizens for Responsible Development (CRD) gathered signatures last year to place the initiative on the ballot. The group formed after a developer proposed a 255,000 square foot retail complex, including a 139,000 square foot Home Depot store.
The proposal has dominated local politics for months. The city council and several former mayors vehemently opposed the size cap, which they characterized as a radical measure that would destroy the city’s ability to expand its tax base.
Supporters countered that the city’s tax base grew 24 percent over the last five years in the absence of big box retail. Moreover, a Home Depot would threaten several of the community’s largest sources of sales tax revenue—a hardware store, lumber dealer, equipment renter, fence business, door supplier, and building materials company—all of which are locally owned.
During the course of the campaign, it was revealed that city officials had met secretly with the developer and had possibly negotiated a substantial public subsidy for Home Depot.
The city was also reprimanded by a superior court judge, who concluded that city did not provide an impartial analysis on materials mailed to voters. “The opinion by the City Attorney is not impartial because it seeks to persuade voters to vote against Proposition H,” the judge ruled. “The opinion expressed by the City Attorney is highly questionable and probably wrong.”
Home Depot funded a faux citizens group, Taxpayers Opposing Special Treatment, to fight the size cap. The group ran newspaper ads, distributed lawn signs and literature, and conducted “push polls,” in which residents were fed favorable statements about Home Depot in the guise of an objective opinion poll.
MOUNTAIN VIEW: In Mountain View, a community of 76,000 north of San Jose, voters defeated a ballot measure to rezone land for a Home Depot store by a 2-to-1 margin.
Home Depot has been trying to build a 125,000 square foot store in Mountain View for several years. The corporation has repeatedly failed to win support from the city council, which placed a 50,000 square foot size limit on the site in 1999. Unable to convince the council to lift cap lifted last year, Home Depot gathered signatures to put the matter directly to voters.
Home Depot pulled out all the stops to win. It formed a “grassroots” group, Citizens for Home Depot, to lead its campaign. As of late February, the organization had raised $433,000 dollars, mostly from Home Depot. The company hired firms to conduct “push polls” and mailed videos extolling the company’s virtues and featuring endorsements from prominent area politicians to 12,000 homes.
Opponents, organized as Citizens Voting No on N, raised $250,000. They distributed lawn signs depicting Home Depot as a menacing gorilla, and brochures that focused on the development’s impact on traffic, local businesses, existing retail jobs, and community character.
The vote was 8,084 against Home Depot and 4,436 in favor.
REEDLEY: Meanwhile, in Reedley, a town of 21,000 near Fresno, voters narrowly rejected two ballot initiatives that would have enabled the construction of a Wal-Mart store.
Measures C and D authorized the annexation and rezoning of agricultural land along the Kings River to allow for commercial development. Both measures were defeated by small margins: 1,585 to 1,564 and 1,598 to 1,536.
Wal-Mart had sought to build a 103,000 square foot store along the river that could be expanded to 187,000 square feet at a later date. After three of five city council members declared conflicts of interest because of land holdings near the site, the council moved to put the decision before the voters. Then in December, Wal-Mart withdrew the project, saying that the $1 million in mitigation costs the city anticipated levying was more than the company wanted to spend.
It was too late to remove the measure from the March ballot and, in the end, the vote mattered, because the property owner indicated that he would pursue other retailers for the site if the re-zoning was approved.
A grassroots group, Citizens to Preserve Reedley, led a spirited campaign against the ballot measures. Loss of small town character, harm to local businesses, and environmental impact topped their list of concerns. To raise public awareness and funds for their campaign, the group sold prints of two paintings, “Aerial View of the Kings: Before Wal-Mart” and “Kings River Bluff: Approach to Reedley,” done by local artists.
CALEXICO: Voters in Calexico, a town of 27,000 along the Mexican border, defeated a ballot initiative that would have barred the construction of a Wal-Mart supercenter.
Measure B asked voters to ban stores larger than 150,000 square feet that devote more than 7.5 percent of their floor space to groceries. The law would bar companies like Wal-Mart and Target from building supercenters that combine general merchandise with a supermarket.
The ordinance lost in a 2,651 to 1,381 vote. Wal-Mart spent $140,000 to defeat the measure. Supporters of the ordinance, including a labor union and small business owners, spent $60,000.
The United Food and Commercial Workers union, which represents supermarket workers, has fought to stop the expansion of Wal-Mart and Target supercenters in California and other states. Both companies are aggressively anti-union. One study found that California’s unionized supermarket workers earn twice as much as their Wal-Mart counterparts.
Ordinances like this one that target supercenters in particular have not been as successful as measures that ban all stores over a certain size. The anti-supercenter measures are often seen as serving a narrow special interest and have not generated broad levels of support.
EAST PALO ALTO: A ballot measure to re-zone 10.5 acres in East Palo Alto, California, to allow for an Ikea furniture store won by just 75 votes. The 300,000 square foot store, the equivalent of more than seven football fields, is slated to open in 2003.
Citizens fought the store on the grounds that it would inundate the area with traffic and undermine the community’s small town atmosphere and local businesses. They were greatly out-spent. As of late February, Ikea had spent $148,000 on the campaign, or $106 for each favorable vote, while opponents had spent just $17,000.