December 23, 2003
A yearlong battle over a Wal-Mart Supercenter in south Bakersfield ended in defeat for the city and developer Monday. Kern Superior Court Judge Kenneth Twisselman ruled that the city of Bakersfield didn’t do an adequate job evaluating the environmental impacts of a major shopping center at Panama Lane and Highway 99 early this year.
He ruled the project’s environmental report invalid, and sent the city back to fix its mistake.
A 220,000-square-foot Wal-Mart Supercenter was the most controversial of the two big-box stores proposed for the shopping center. The other store will be a Lowe’s.
Members of the United Food and Commercial Workers union and other Wal-Mart opponents mounted a spirited opposition to the supercenter on Panama and a second one at Gosford and Harris roads.
They said the mega-retail centers which would include a full-service grocery store in addition to a regular Wal-Mart would steal jobs from grocery workers and the city’s small business community.
Even so, the City Council approved the supercenters in February. Both projects have since been challenged in court.
Twisselman said the environmental report for the Panama shopping center had done a good job of reviewing the project’s impact on air, traffic, general health and the San Joaquin kit fox.
But, he said, the city failed to study whether the huge stores planned for the project would cause an economic chain reaction that would leave other “big-box” buildings around Bakersfield vacant.
City staff had argued, at the time the two Wal-Marts went before the council, that economic impacts of a project were not an environmental concern.
But Twisselman ruled that vacant, unattractive buildings have an environmental impact-an urban decay that the City Council should have evaluated before clearing the Wal-Mart project for construction.
Lawyers for the Bakersfield Citizens for Local control, the group that filed the lawsuit, cheered Twisselman’s decision and hailed it as a critical step in fighting similar mega projects in California’s Central Valley.
“The judge has rebuked the city and said they can’t play ‘zoning for dollars,” said Bakersfield Citizens’ lawyer Steven Herum. “Major retail developers cannot promise sales tax and low-paying jobs without considering the impact to long-term businesses.”
Panama and Highway 99 project developer Lee Jamieson, who also built the Northwest Promenade project on Rosedale Highway, would not comment about Twisselman’s decision on Monday.
City Attorney Ginny Gennaro said the city will need to study the impacts outlined in Twisselman’s decision, add them to the original environmental report and bring it back to the Bakersfield City Council for re-certification.
“This isn’t the first time an EIR has been invalidated and it won’t be the last,” said City Councilman Mark Salvaggio, referring to the report. “we just have to go back to the well and do better on that point.”
She also said that the city will have to re-evaluate the way it looks at all major commercial projects in light of Twisselman’s decision.
“We’ll begin to look at ‘urban decay'” as an environmental impact, she said.
Monday’s decision might also affect the second Wal-Mart Supercenter project at Gosford and Harris roads.
Bakersfield Citizens for Local control has also sued the city over that project, which goes before Twisselman on Jan 16.
In the meantime, construction on the Panama Lane and Highway 99 project is continuing.
Herum asked Twisselman, as soon as the ruling against the project was handed down, to halt ongoing construction at the site.
But Twisselman refused to block construction immediately.
Instead, he scheduled arguments on a temporary restraining order for a Wednesday morning hearing.
Gennaro said the city doesn’t want to see 250 jobs frozen by such a restraining order.
“We think it would be a shame to put these workers out of business at any time of the year – but especially this time of year.