After a six-year process, the Visalia Walmart on Noble Avenue is only one step away from becoming a newsupercenter. The Visalia City Council voted December 6 to approve the final Environmental Impact Report (EIR) and the Conditional Use Permit(CUP)for the Walmart expansion.According to Andrew Chamberlain, Visalia city planner, this is the longest permitting process he has been through since working for the city.
In approving the CUP, the city council is looking forward to the over 20-year-old store getting a complete remodel andnew façade. The existing Walmart, located at 1819 East Noble Avenue, will be expanded from 133,206 square feet up to 190,000 square feet. With the expansion and larger parking lot, several derelict buildings will also be demolished.
The supercenter will add a grocery store to its retail section and be open 24 hours a day. Right now Walmart is open from 6am to 11pm. The improved facility will also have an outdoor garden center and possibly a new fast food tenant. The expansion will go north toward Noble and East towards South Pinkham Street.
According to Gail Zurek, president of the Visalia Chamber of Commerce, the supercenter will increase Visalia’s tax base and provide new jobs.
During the public hearing all speakers were in favor of the expansion. Marilyn Kinoshita, the Tulare County agriculture commissioner, a pastor from a local church and Zurek related how Walmart is a good neighbor and generously donates to local charitable organizations. Visalia Mayor Nelsen agreed, applaudingWalmart for staying the course even through the many appeals causing years of delays.
Linda Sambrano also spoke during the hearing. She lives behind Walmart’s north wall and has been involved with the proposed expansion since 2009 when the company first approached their neighbors. Her neighborhood’s concern is the increase in crime and homeless population that a huge retailer and parking lot attracts. Walmart’s back wall is currently only six feet high, which is short enough for shoplifters to jump over to get away from the police. She said this has happened several times and she has incurred damages to her backyard and gate.
After the meeting,Sambrano said that she was very happy with the city council’s decision to raise the wall to eight feet. She said that she was also very impressed with how well the council members listened, and took into consideration, her request to make the back wall 10 feet high, even though it was not feasible. The engineer said that they could raise the wall to eight feet without much modification but to go 10 feet would mean they would have to get into everyone’s backyard and construct bracing for the increased weight.
A Long Road
Walmart’s final step before being able to start constructionis going back to court to lift the writ of mandate.This was imposed when a San Francisco law firm, M.R. Wolfe and Associates, challenged the first EIR as violating the state’s environmental standards, in particular air quality.The Visalia Planning Commission first approved the site plan in April, 2011. M.R. Wolfe and Associates appealed the next month.
In its appeal, the law firm claimed that the project would unreasonably worsen the air quality in the surrounding area. The law firm represented the Visalia Smart Growth Coalition,made up of a couple of concerned residents, but mainly local grocers who did not want to see Walmart expand into selling groceries. Even though the law firm continued to file appeals and send letters asking for postponements of council meetings, no one from the coalition or law firm has showed up to a council meeting since 2011.
M.R. Wolfe and Associatesalso representedthe Hanford Clean Air Coalition in challenging a retail building complex near the southwest corner of 12th Avenue and Lacey Boulevard. According to Darrel Pyle, Hanford city manager, he has never seen a member of the Hanford Clean Air Coalition and suspects they may be the similar to the Visalia group.
A big box retailer is already committed to the development and the “group” might be another big box chain that doesn’t want competition. Wolfe and Associates has also opposed a proposed a WinCo Foods Store in Vallejo using the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) to slow the process. The Hanford development will not go through what happened in Visalia, however, as the appeal has been withdrawn and the development can proceed with construction.
Councilmember Greg Collins lamented the design of the entire shopping district along Noble, including Save Mart. If M.R. Wolfe and Associates really cared about the air quality, they would have protested the development’s design.As it is now, there is only one way in and out of Walmart and you can’t walk, bicycle or even drive from Save Mart to Walmart. One has to get into their car, get on Noble, and idle at two stoplights before turning into the Walmart parking,where more idling normally occurs.
“It’s frustrating to me as a city planner. The design is crappy” said Collins. He also said that law firms used CEQA not to improve the environment but to intentionally stall the permitting process.
Council member Warren Gubler concurred. “I am concerned how long this took and how CEQA is being used as a club.”
The council vote was 5-0 to approve the project