Walmart, The Annex get OK from Atascadero Planning Commission

200 residents attend commissioners’ meeting ahead of their recommendation to City Council on project

tstrickland@thetribunenews.comJune 6, 2012 

Tuesday night's Atascadero Planning Commission meeting was attended by about 200 members of the public who spoke for almost two hours as they lined up at two podiums.


UPDATE: The Atascadero Planning Commission gave its recommendation early Wednesday morning that the City Council should approve the construction of Walmart and The Annex on the north end of town.

The commission made its decision after six hours of discussion that ended just after midnight.

The final approval came down to a 4-1 vote with Commissioner Len Colamarino dissenting.

Commissioner Beth Wingett was absent, and Commissioner Christian Cooper excused himself from the meeting.

Colamarino declined to recommend approval of the projects because of what he described as the developments posing a "financial and legal risk to the city."

He is uncomfortable with the new cost-sharing plan that has the city fronting costs for future builders' roadwork around the project area.

He's also concerned with the future of The Annex as that remains up in the air after Montecito Bank & Trust told city planners that it plans to sell the land to a developer after The Annex is approved.

"There’s an expectation that The Annex will go swimmingly" and that other development will come, Colamarino said Tuesday. "For us to gamble the city’s limited resources, to me, seems very suspect."

Commissioner David Bentz argued that it's not the Planning Commission's job to question financial matters, as that is the job of the City Council.

The pair got into a brief argument on the subject just before midnight.

Ultimately, Colamarino said he couldn't support the project with the financial unknowns, noting that he also has questions with how the city can borrow from its wastewater fund to front the roadwork costs.

Chairman Chuck Ward closed the night by saying that discussion is part of the process.

"If we disagree, that’s part of the system," he said. "... This has been a little emotional for all of us. But we can move forward and it’s (now) in the hands of the City Council."

Original story: Atascadero’s Planning Commission on Tuesday night heard the final arguments over whether a Walmart shopping center and adjacent retail center called The Annex should be built on the north side of town.

The meeting, the first before the commission, drew a crowd of about 200 people to City Hall and continued after 10 p.m. without a decision having been reached.

The commission’s vote will serve as recommendation to the City Council, which will have final say later this month.

Part of the city staff proposal, which encourages that the shopping centers be built, supports the idea that Atascadero should borrow money from its wastewater fund to front some costs for roadwork associated with future development around the projects. The city would then pay back its sewer fund with fees from builders.

The city attorney said borrowing the money from the wastewater fund for roadwork is legal.

Tuesday’s meeting was a landmark in the Walmart debate, which over time has seen 15 public meetings, multiple redesigns, a failed ballot measure banning big-box stores, an impasse between the two developers on how to fund road improvements, an alternative traffic impact study and most recently a foreclosure on The Annex property.

Those who don’t want to see a Walmart store built have faced off against those who tout the retail giant for its community contributions.

A Walmart store would bring 300 jobs plus hundreds of temporary construction jobs to town, a Wal-Mart Inc. spokeswoman said.

“We need the jobs. We need the sales tax. And I think this is the best thing that can happen to this community,” resident Mike Anderson said.

But for others, concerns about road improvement costs, noise and impact to small business remain paramount.

A new cost-sharing plan for an estimated $4.5 million worth of roadwork for the Del Rio Road interchange has Wal-Mart paying about $2.2 million, with the city fronting the remainder. Consultants say builders of future developments, as defined by city growth estimates through 2025, would reimburse the city with the fees they pay.

Some in the public say that’s too risky.

“I don’t want the city to risk its financial stability,” said Ellen Beraud, a former city councilwoman now speaking as a citizen.

A last-minute change in ownership of The Annex also adds to the mix.

The Annex remains part of plans after Santa Barbara-based Montecito Bank & Trust opted last month to move forward after purchasing the property in a foreclosure auction.

The bank wants to get land entitlements for The Annex to make the parcels more valuable when a developer buys it, city officials said. Rottman, the previous developer that defaulted on its Annex loan, still owns one of the parcels planned for the shopping center’s drainage, some parking and a freeway sign.

Rottman’s Los Angeles-based attorney asked the Planning Commission in a letter to delay Tuesday’s hearing for two weeks because “Rottman and the bank have not resolved how they could jointly move forward with The Annex.”

The Annex and Wal-Mart have separate projects, but the ways their developments could impact the area were studied together; as a result, the city will consider them for approval at the same time.

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