Three Atascadero residents are pushing the city for a public workshop to discuss how last year’s environmental report for a proposed Walmart and adjacent shopping center differs from a new version released last month.
Having the city front nearly half the cost of the stores’ multimillion-dollar road improvements, instead of requiring the two developers to do so, is the most notable change for those concerned.
The residents are Tom Comar with the Save Atascadero group, Ron Rothman with the Concerned Citizens for Del Rio group and David Broadwater, who isn’t affiliated with a group but routinely speaks at City Council meetings.
No study session is planned. But because Monday is the deadline for the public to provide feedback before the report becomes final, the three argue that the differences between the two densely written documents are confusing and the public should be given the opportunity to better understand them. Once finalized, the environmental report will help Atascadero determine whether to approve or deny the projects.
While the residents have criticized plans for a Walmart in the past, they say the current issue is the distribution of information.
“We agree that people can disagree on whether Walmart is good for Atascadero,” Rothman said. “The problem we have today is ... that misleading information has been given — sometimes conflicting information.”
Broadwater thinks most residents aren’t aware of the shift in the share of costs being fronted by the city, he said.
While the city isn’t planning a workshop, the public can ask questions at City Hall and peruse both copies of the report in the lobby, Community Development Director Warren Frace said. The City Council previously decided not to have a study session because the reports are still in draft form, he added.
“The reality is, this level of EIR is highly complex and highly technical, so it can be confusing,” Frace said. “But staff is available.”
Walmart and The Annex are the long discussed and controversial retail and housing developments proposed for vacant lots at El Camino Real and Del Rio Road on the north side of town.
The developments went in together on an environmental study to determine how their projects would affect roads, noise levels and the environment.
Two versions of the traffic chapter in the state-mandated study exist because the first report, issued in February 2011, was updated last month after the developers couldn’t agree on how to fund $4.5 million in estimated road improvements. The impasse held up further City Council hearings on the matter, so the council approved a Walmart-only option that would be studied as an amendment to the traffic chapter in the first report.
An Annex-only option wasn’t given additional study because it’s believed that the Walmart would be the main draw, city officials previously said. The Annex is intended to have shopping, dining and some housing.
After the update was released last month, it was determined that the “Walmart road improvements are the same, with or without The Annex,” Frace said.
But several of the consultant’s recommendations on how to offset project impacts also changed with the updated report — including when the road improvements would be done and who would pay for them.
The road improvements are two roundabouts on the Highway 101 overpass. Walmart would fund a third roundabout before opening its doors at El Camino Real and Del Rio Road, where a traffic light stands today. It would also pay for other upgrades to accommodate added traffic such as a new signal light at El Camino Real and San Anselmo Road.
Meanwhile, the fate of The Annex portion of the project remains uncertain after an auction for its property was scheduled for May 8. It’s unclear whether the land can be retained, but Frace has said the city will continue to pursue the project until The Annex application is withdrawn.
Monday is the deadline to provide feedback on the updated report. Those with questions on the two versions can contact Community Development Director Warren Frace at firstname.lastname@example.org or at Atascadero City Hall, 6907 El Camino Real. Those looking to speak to the concerned residents can contact David Broadwater at email@example.com and Ron Rothman at 466-3826 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
HOW THE ENVIRONMENTAL REPORTS DIFFER
Here’s a look at some changes between the two versions of the environmental reports on the Walmart-Annex project:
Del Rio Interchange over Highway 101
Initial: The first report said that “the project” and “the applicant” would be responsible for improvements to the interchange. Some took that to be Walmart’s parent company, Wal-Mart Inc., while others understood that phrasing as Wal-Mart Inc. and The Annex. Ultimately, though, the first report didn’t specify the applicant by name, which caused much of the dispute between Wal-Mart Inc. and The Annex on how to split the estimated $4.5 million cost.
Revised: The updated study suggested dividing the improvements: Wal-Mart Inc. paying for about 29 percent, or nearly $1.3 million; The Annex funding about 24 percent, or about $1.1 million; and 47 percent of the costs falling to builders of future development, about $2.1 million. The costs assigned to Wal-Mart Inc. and The Annex would be raised using a new type of fee to be collected from the two developers specifically to fund the roundabouts. That fee would be in addition to traffic impact fees that developers normally pay: about $1.7 million from Wal-Mart Inc. and about $1.2 million from The Annex.The city would front the costs for future development and wait to be reimbursed. Future development is defined by city growth estimates through 2025.
Initial: Consultants said the estimated road improvements were to be “completed before opening of the Walmart store.” It also said that the three roundabouts should be built at the same time.
Revised: The city can’t guarantee the improvements will be in place before Walmart opens, but the road improvements would begin “as soon as is reasonably feasible.” The update also leaves out the previous recommendation that the three roundabouts be built in tandem. Warren Frace, Atascadero’s community development director, said the second report makes it clear that Caltrans is ultimately in charge of approving the roundabouts’ construction on the Highway 101 overpass, as was always the case.
Highway 101 costs
Initial: The developer’s traffic improvement fees would be used to fund a variety of improvements to Highway 101 near the project site. Those improvements weren’t laid out in detail but were referred to as future plans as determined by the San Luis Obispo Council of Governments, a regional traffic agency in the county.
Revised: The new study said no improvement fees are available, which some residents thought was because the traffic improvement fees are now being used for the roundabouts. But Frace said the developers’ standard citywide traffic improvement fees collected before development would still be used for Highway 101 improvements as decided.
— Tonya Strickland