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Cleanup on Del Rio Road 

A citizen lawsuit aims to make Atascadero take a mulligan on its Wal-Mart approval

Some folks in Atascadero desperately want a Wal-Mart, and others vehemently oppose it. Yet the issue became about more than discount retail a long time ago, a state of affairs evidenced by the fact that litigation over the proposal is proving anything but a bargain.

Save Atascadero, a group formerly known as Oppose Wal-Mart, filed a lawsuit in state court alleging the city violated the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) when it approved plans to build a 129,560-square-foot supercenter two miles north of downtown. CEQA requires that government agencies conduct a public review of the environmental impacts of a proposed project. Atascadero completed the review process and issued a report, but Save Atascadero argues that the city’s efforts fell well short of fulfilling its legal duties.

The two sides argued their case before Judge Jac Crawford on March 19 in Paso Robles.

“We have a project that should go forward,” Atascadero City Attorney Brian Pierik told the court. “We ask that you deny this petition.”

Wal-Mart opponents contend that the city failed to examine the cumulative air impacts introduced by the development in combination with other nearby building projects. The group also accuses the city of withholding one air quality impact study from the public. Save Atascadero attorney Mark Wolfe suggested on March 19 that the city should have reset the CEQA process in light of the alleged deficiencies.

“The city simply failed to proceed as CEQA requires,” Wolfe said.

Pierik responded by challenging the accusation that the city concealed project data from the public. He asserted that an outside agency compiled the data and city staff went beyond its legal duties to track down the analysis for Save Atascadero.

“What is it about these two pages that is so magical, that is so significant, that it would justify recirculation of the [report]?” Pierik asked. “I suggest nothing.”

Another critical issue in dispute between the city and Save Atascadero deals with how the court will scrutinize the project. Save Atascadero wants the project reviewed on procedural grounds because the standard of review used by the judge would accord less deference to the city. However, a procedural lawsuit also means that the city can go back and fix whatever deficiencies Crawford might find in its review of the Wal-Mart supercenter project.

Save Atascadero’s decision to challenge the city in court elicited a fierce reaction from some in the community despite the fact that—or perhaps because—circumstance delayed the Wal-Mart project before. The Del Rio proposal caused waves when it first surfaced seven years ago. A temporary City Council reshuffling in 2006 forced developers to scale back the project from the 207,000-square-foot big box originally proposed by developers. The onset of recession further delayed the project in 2010.

On June 26, 2012, the City Council finally issued the permits to begin construction, and Save Atascadero responded with a complaint filed in state court. Some consider the lawsuit an obstructionist tactic, a characterization to which Save Atascadero members take exception.

“The only purpose of the lawsuit was to force the city of Atascadero to follow CEQA guidelines and to maximize mitigation,” group spokesman Tom Comar said. “Our minimal requests of the city and Wal-Mart would settle the suit.”

City officials began taking a low-profile approach to the issue once Save Atascadero brought it to court. The council issued a joint statement last fall expressing disappointment with the complaint and reaffirming plans to carry forward with the project.

Only planning commissioner Len Colamarino voted against allowing Wal-Mart to build the supercenter. He told New Times he voted against the project because plans to build a 121,000-square-foot retail annex neighboring the supercenter fell by the wayside early in 2012. The annex developer later went insolvent and lost much of its Del Rio Road property to the bank.

The city had to front money from its wastewater fund to cover the annex’s share of the $2.5 million needed to improve the Del Rio Road freeway interchange.

“The city has its economic hopes pinned on Wal-Mart,” Colamarino said. “It’s a gamble.”

Adding to the city’s gamble was the strong probability that approval of the project would lead to litigation. Save Atascadero’s expansive complaint actually covers just a small sampling of the issues raised by Wal-Mart opponents during project approval.

Neighbor Randy Lawrence said he knew the Del Rio parcel was zoned commercial when he moved to the area 25 years ago. Nevertheless, he thinks the city blew off neighbors’ concerns that the supercenter proposal would exacerbate traffic problems and cause more accidents on a notorious stretch of Highway 101 north of Del Rio Road.

“It’s like trying to cram a size 10 foot into a size eight shoe,” Lawrence said. “It’s just a bad location."

Staff Writer Patrick M. Klemz can be reached at [email protected].

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