Traffic dispute impedes proposed Atascadero Walmart, Annex projects

After months of talks behind closed doors, Atascadero city staff now says it’s unlikely that Wal-Mart and The Annex shopping centers will agree on how to pay for traffic improvements that consultants say are needed if both proposed projects are built at the city’s north end.

It’s the latest development in a hot-button issue that the city has been wrestling with since 2007. In recent weeks, further controversy has unfolded as representatives from both projects have hinted at their dispute in public opinion pieces.

Wal-Mart Stores Inc. is proposing a commercial and residential project off Del Rio Road, while the Santa Barbara-based Rottman Group wants to build The Annex shopping center next to it.

Tonight, city staff plans to propose to the City Council that further study be given to a Walmart-only option that drops The Annex.

In doing so, it would “not preclude the city from approving the current project with The Annex, rather it gives the city two legitimate project options to choose from, each with a complete environmental analysis and mitigation measures,” according to a staff report.

Wal-Mart has agreed to fund the cost of the added study.

Meanwhile, some local residents fear traffic improvement costs could be pushed to taxpayers. They plan to present signatures against the notion at tonight’s council meeting and request that council members sign a pledge stating “they will not use taxpayer funds or provide subsidies to Walmart,” Atascadero resident Tom Comar wrote in an email.

On Monday, city Community Development Director Warren Frace said there isn’t a “plan to include existing property owners” in the related traffic costs.

Tonight’s step is the first after a six-month standstill. In June, the developers reached an impasse on how to fund the $3 million to $4.5 million Del Rio Road freeway interchange project at Highway 101.

Wal-Mart spokeswoman Amelia McLear said her company is “unclear (on) why there would be a dispute” because she said the retailer has always been committed to paying for the traffic improvements for their project — specifically, an estimated $1.7 million.

An undisclosed part of that money would come from traffic impact fees, Wal-Mart representatives previously said.

But Keith Mathias, a developer in the Rottman Group, said the retailer originally said it would pay for all improvements.

He references an October 2007 presentation in which Wal-Mart officials told the city that the retailer would pay for the environmental review and the improvements recommended. It’s unclear from the city’s video clip of that meeting whether that meant The Annex would pay as well.

Mathias said Monday, “It’s clear that Wal-Mart is trying to push The Annex out of their way.”

Rottman has committed to about $1.5 million in traffic impact fees.

Walmart and The Annex were proposed to the city as separate projects, but their applications were studied together in an environmental review at the request of Atascadero officials.

Wal-Mart funded that study, released in February as a first draft, in which consultants analyzed how both developments could influence the surrounding area in factors such as traffic, air quality and noise.

The first draft of the study said building both projects together was most favorable for the city because of the variety of restaurants and shops they could offer. But it also presented options from each project on its own. State laws require all options be considered on how to lessen developments’ impact to the area, Frace said.

If the council opts that an amendment be made to the study for additional Walmart-only information, the needs for traffic improvements would be made more clear.

Modifications to the Del Rio interchange would be required regardless, City Manager Wade McKinney said Monday.