Rene — Wal-Mart tries end run around balky city

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Wal-Mart tries end run around balky city
By V. Dion Haynes, Chicago Tribune national correspondent
INGLEWOOD, Calif. — Stung by strong opposition in nearly every corner of the country where it proposes a large-scale development, Wal-Mart is taking a new tack here: bypassing local regulators and going straight to voters for permission to build a mega-store.
By introducing the ballot measure, which goes to voters April 6, Wal-Mart hopes to avoid several major obstacles to building its so-called supercenter: environmental reviews, traffic studies, public hearings and especially obstinate municipal officials who until now had the final say.
The Wal-Mart ballot proposal is a byproduct of California’s quirky initiative process, which over the years has resulted in controversial laws that slashed property taxes, abolished affirmative action and bilingual education and, in October, ousted Gov. Gray Davis (news – web sites) less than a year after he was elected to his second term.
Indeed, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger (news – web sites), who won the recall election, has threatened to go directly to voters if the California Legislature does not approve reforms in the worker’s compensation law.
A rarely used provision in state law allows the exemption for construction projects submitted to voters as an initiative. The thinking is that such projects probably would receive much more public scrutiny than those going through the typical process involving zoning boards and city councils.
“Having 200 people at a [City Council] meeting saying they don’t want Wal-Mart is not reflective of the 50,000 people in Inglewood who do want us,” said Wal-Mart spokesman Peter Kanelos. “The community is not against us. [The opposition is merely] a special interest group trying to limit competition.”
Wal-Mart officials opted to go directly to voters after the Inglewood City Council passed an ordinance banning the construction of retail stores with at least 155,000 square feet that sell 20,000 food items–essentially the definition of a superstore. The council repealed the ordinance after Wal-Mart launched a petition drive against it and threatened to sue the city.
“It seemed rather pointless to go to the council when they said you can’t build a store here,” Kanelos said. “Why spend hundreds of thousands of dollars just to be denied?”
Would city play role?
The open question is whether Wal-Mart would have to go through the city at all if the initiative were to pass.
Wal-Mart, attempting to answer many concerns beforehand, has filed a 75-page initiative that addresses such issues as economic benefits to the city, design and landscaping, traffic, storm-water runoff and the use of low-flush toilets to save water.
The initiative, according to a City Council analysis, authorizes the entire project without any action from the city.
Some planning experts assert that state law still could require some city review if the initiative passes. Even so, such scrutiny would come after the fact, when the City Council could do little to stop it.
Most citizens wouldn’t understand the Wal-Mart initiative, said Stuart Meck, a senior research fellow at the Chicago-based American Planning Association, a professional organization representing 34,000 planning experts around the country.
“You wouldn’t know how to examine regulations, you wouldn’t know how to read the map, you wouldn’t be able to check runoff, lighting and landscaping,” he added. “You need [an expert] to evaluate the adverse environmental impacts.”
Controversy follows chain
The nation’s largest corporation, Wal-Mart has become a lightning rod for controversy, facing criticism from labor organizations about its anti-union policies; charges from human-rights advocates about overseas sweatshops; and complaints from small retailers about being put out of business by the retail giant. In November, federal prosecutors informed Wal-Mart that it is the target of an investigation into the hiring of illegal immigrants.
Now the anti-Wal-Mart campaign is ratcheting up with the company’s effort to establish “supercenters” around the nation. At more than 180,000 square feet, the supercenters are 50 percent larger than a typical Wal-Mart and combine grocery products with the usual department store goods.
Disputes over the supercenters have erupted in Medford, Ore.; Cheyenne, Wyo.; Albuquerque; Tulsa; Stoughton, Wis.; Liberty Township, Ohio; Hernando, Tenn.; Atlanta; Hudson, Fla.; Union County, N.C.; Hartford, Conn.; and Bangor, Maine.
The battle has been particularly intense in California, where the retailer has announced plans to open 40 supercenters and where 75,000 workers continue a three-month strike against grocery chains in competition with Wal-Mart. The key issue in the strike is the chains’ effort to cut wages and benefits to put their prices more in line with Wal-Mart’s. On Sunday, a grocery union spokesman said four days of informal negotiations ended without success.
On the offensive
The company has gone on the offensive in Inglewood, seeking voter approval to develop a 60-acre site near the Hollywood Park racetrack.
“I’m a Korean War veteran; I believe in the Constitution of the United States and in competition. Wal-Mart should have just as much right to come to Inglewood as any other company,” said Inglewood resident Williem Agee, 74, a Parks and Recreation Department commissioner and an initiative proponent.
“At this point, the Wal-Mart [initiative] would pass without a doubt,” he said, asserting that the retailer would not have had a chance with what he called a “pro-union City Council.”
David Stewart, president of the Inglewood Chamber of Commerce (news – web sites) who owns a construction company, said: “We need Wal-Mart. We need revenue-generating ventures for Inglewood . . . and viable business opportunities to provide jobs for our kids.”
But a community group called Coalition for a Better Inglewood has filed a lawsuit seeking to invalidate the Wal-Mart initiative. It says the initiative is illegal because it oversteps the bounds of the initiative process in taking review authority from the city.
Community opposition
Wal-Mart is “trying to take away the rights of community people” to speak out on the proposal before it is voted on, said Rev. Altagracia Perez, pastor of Holy Faith Episcopal Church in Inglewood and a member of the coalition.
“My hope is the initiative will be taken off the ballot and Wal-Mart will come back to the table and work [with the city] on safeguards,” she added.
A handful of developers have gone the initiative route with mixed results. Many of the projects, largely housing developments, have been defeated.
Still, experts say, Wal-Mart has advantages with voters that other developers don’t have.
“Wal-Mart has lots of shoppers, employees, distributors and vendors,” said Larry Kosmont, president of Kosmont Cos., a Los Angeles-based real estate firm specializing in economic development issues.
“Wal-Mart is a mini-economy unto itself.”