Three highly anticipated studies regarding the potential impact of Wal-Mart supercenters in California have been released in recent weeks. A supercenter is a full Wal-Mart store plus a full-sized grocery and usually totals 180,000 to 230,000 square feet. Wal-Mart hopes to build 40 supercenters in California in five years, but some cities and counties have blocked Wal-Mart (see CP&DR, February 2004).

The studies have some common threads but reach dramatically different conclusions — and the studies drew predictable responses.

A Los Angeles County Economic Development Corporation (LAEDC) report defended supercenters as a net gain for the region. The LAEDC found that if supercenters had 20% of the grocery market, households in the seven-county Southern California region would save an average of $589 annually, a total $3.76 billion. There could be regional loss of up to 5,100 grocery jobs, but those losses would be offset 7-to-1 by gains in other sectors that would be funded by money saved on groceries, the LAEDC concluded.

In a study prepared by University of California, Irvine, Professor Marlon Boarnet and UCLA Professor Randall Crane, the Bay Area Economic Forum concluded that supercenters controlling 6% to 18% of the market could reduce consumers’ grocery bills in a 12-county region by 5% to 13% annually. The savings of as much $1.13 billion a year could stimulate other spending, the report says. However, the supercenters would likely pay employees about half as much as the typical Bay Area grocery clerk, reducing payrolls by as much as $677 million a year and harming what has been a source of high-paying, entry-level employment, the study said. The study recommended local governments consider proposed superstores’ demands on roads and public services, and the possibility of existing retail areas closing.

A report released by Rep. George Miller (D-Martinez) called Wal-Mart a tax drain. Because of low wages and restricted health benefits, a Wal-Mart store with 200 employees costs taxpayers about $420,000 a year for health care, housing subsidies and school lunches, according to the report, prepared by the Democratic staff on the House Education and Workforce Committee.

IN OTHER BIG-BOX NEWS, Wal-Mart has filed lawsuits against both the City of Turlock and Alameda County regarding new ordinances that block superstores. The separate state court lawsuits claim Turlock and Alameda County violated the California Environmental Quality Act and other procedural requirements. Wal-Mart also filed a federal lawsuit against Turlock alleging a violation of the company’s equal protection rights.

OWNERS OF ABOUT 5% of the stock in Costco have voted for a resolution calling on the discount membership store to devise a policy for the selection and acquisition of store sites. The shareholders, led by Christian Brothers Investment Services (CBIS), say Costco has not been sensitive to local concerns. CBIS said it would continue to press the issue.

THE LEGISLATIVE ANALYST'S OFFICE'S budget analysis released in mid-February contains a number of proposals worrisome to planners and housing advocates. Among other things, the LAO recommended using more Proposition 46 bond money for ongoing multi-family housing programs, increasing the amount of property tax revenue shifted from redevelopment agencies to school districts by nearly $200 million, eliminating the Office of Planning and Research, and dropping the regional housing mandate.

ALTHOUGH IT HAS BEEN RELUCTANT to fully embrace the New Urbanist-style City of Villages plan (see CP&DR Insight, August 2002), the San Diego City Council in February approved five sites as "pilot villages." Those five communities and developers there will get higher priority for water and sewer improvements, help with applying for financial assistance, and expedited permitting.

The pilot projects range from 366 row houses, condominiums, apartments and lofts on 8 acres along El Cajon Boulevard, to 839 housing units, an amphitheater, shops, offices and job training centers on 45 acres at Euclid Avenue and Market Street.

DEVELOPMENT IN THE PLACER COUNTY CITY OF ROSEVILLE advanced in February when the City Council approved the west Roseville specific plan, which calls for about 8,400 housing units plus a business park and retail areas on 3,100 acres (see CP&DR Local Watch, August 2003). The council also approved development agreements with West Park Associates and Signature Properties. The project now moves to the Placer County Local Agency Formation Commission, which will consider the city’s proposed annexation of the territory.

At the same time the Roseville plan moved forward, a visiting Superior Court Judge blocked Placer County’s approval of the 1,900-home Bickford Ranch project, just north of Loomis. Judge John Golden found the county’s record so confusing that he could not determine which version of the project the county approved.

CALAVERAS COUNTY SUPERVISORS approved road impact fees for the first time in February. Road fees failed to win Board of Supervisors’ support last year because the fees did not cover commercial development (see CP&DR, In Brief, January 2004). The new fees are $3,300 per single-family home and $2,400 per multi-family unit. Non-residential fees range as high as $8.60 per square foot for highway commercial development. Supervisors voted 3-2 for the fees. Among the dissenters was California State Association of Counties President Paul Stein.

THE THIRD DISTRICT COURT OF APPEAL issued something of a split decision regarding a proposed shopping mall in Elk Grove. The Department of Conservation and slow-growth advocates had sued to block the 295-acre, 3 million-square-foot Lent Ranch Marketplace project, proposed for farmland on the south end of town. A Sacramento County Superior Court Judge found the EIR inadequate for a number of reasons.
In an unpublished, 2-1 decision, the Third District overturned all of the lower court decision except with regard to farmland mitigation. The court ruled that the city must find a way to mitigate the loss of 300 acres of "farmland of statewide importance." Both sides in the five-year-old fight claimed victory.

THE U.S. FISH AND WILDLIFE SERVICE has decided not to protect the midvalley fairy shrimp, which lives in portions of the Central Valley and East Bay, under the Endangered Species Act. The agency found that the species often lives in vernal pool habitat that is already protected, or in rural areas with little development pressure.

The decision on the midvalley fairy shrimp came at about the same time that environmentalists sued the federal agency over its 2003 decision, based in part on economic grounds, to remove 1 million acres from a critical habitat designation for four freshwater shrimp and 11 plant species. That land lies in Butte, Sacramento, Solano, Merced and Madera counties.