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WAL-MART ONE STEP CLOSER TO BECOMING A SUPERCENTER

By Kelley Atherton

Wescom News Service

CRESCENT CITY – The Del Norte County Board of Supervisors decided to move forward Tuesday with Wal-Mart's expansion into a Supercenter.

Supervisors heard passionate comments on both sides of the issue during a public hearing on an appeal of the county planning commission's decision to certify the Environmental Impact Review (EIR) for the expansion.

In a 3-1 vote (Supervisor Leslie McNamer was absent), the board denied the appeal.

The appellant, the Crescent Heritage Coalition, still has 30 days to challenge the ruling in court. Its attorney, Paul Hagen, said a legal challenge probably would be filed, which could at least stall the expansion.

The expansion would almost double the size of the current store to include groceries and other merchandise.

Hagen told The Daily Triplicate that there are multiple legal problems with the EIR, which he said should be thrown out or re-evaluated.

Local resident Ron Cole, on behalf of the coalition, appealed the planning commission's decision. He said at the meeting Tuesday that the two main issues that are not fully researched in the EIR are urban decay – basically the effects of business closures – and water runoff into Elk Creek.

"Del Norte residents cannot afford to rely on an inadequate (EIR)," he said, adding that it risks the county's economic development and environment.

Several people said that Wal-Mart has hurt small businesses since it opened in 1992. Patti Pearcey, the owner of the Bookcomber bookstore downtown, said businesses "went down like dominos."

"We can't turn back the clock, but expansion is not necessary," Pearcey said. "We need to support each other. I haven't seen local government support us."

Catherine Noble said the money local residents spend at Wal-Mart leaves the area and doesn't help the county's economy.

"Wal-Mart makes a lot of money for shareholders," Noble said.

Others contended that it's not Wal-Mart causing vacant storefronts, but a lack of community support for local businesses. Buy locally, they said. Don't go out of the area to shop.

"The community mentality has to change," said Del Norte County resident Christa Norton. "Go to Patti (Pearcey) to buy books, not the Internet."

Wal-Mart would create more full-time jobs and help people get off welfare, she said.

"It's an excellent attribute to this community," Norton said, adding Wal-Mart donates money to local charities. "To leave it as it is, is a shame."

Urban decay was the prominent talking point Tuesday. Most comments centered on whether a Supercenter would benefit or harm the community.

Sandra Vanderhoofven, a member of the Crescent Heritage Coalition, said the EIR doesn't adequately address how the Supercenter would affect small businesses and those with "entrepreneurial spirit." The community needs to know how many stores could possibly close before a decision of this magnitude is made, she said.

"They can't compete against Wal-Mart," she said, adding this will lead to vacant storefronts and jobs lost, and a loss of Crescent City's "small town flair."

Other disagreed that Wal-Mart has or will cause urban decay. Local resident Ron Plechaty said that a Supercenter would increase tax revenues for the county, create jobs and a regional shopping area and provide groceries at a lower price.

Supervisor Martha McClure was the lone "no" vote against denying the appeal. McClure said she didn't agree with the conclusion in the EIR that only one grocery store would close in the aftermath of Wal-Mart's expansion.

"There's where the EIR – in relation to urban decay – is deficient," she said.

William Fleishhacker, an attorney out of San Francisco who represents Wal-Mart, said that those concerns are already addressed in the EIR. The Supercenter would primarily compete with grocery stores and not all local businesses, he said, adding the upgraded store would capture more out-of-town business.

Supervisor Mike Sullivan said the concept of urban decay is subjective and there could be a lot of causes, such as the region's preponderance of publicly owned land or the city's redevelopment of downtown after the 1964 tsunami.

Ultimately, the board decided the EIR adequately covered all the issues it needed to for a building permit to be issued. Chairman David Finigan reminded the audience that the EIR was not about whether supervisors or the board like Wal-Mart; but rather it's an environmental document.

It's up to local residents to rectify urban decay and not blame Wal-Mart, Sullivan said.

"It's easy to villainize Wal-Mart," he said. "Local residents need to shop at local businesses."

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