Atascadero could split up Walmart-Annex plan

After more than an hour of heated public comment from critics and supporters Tuesday evening, the Atascadero City Council unanimously approved further study for a Walmart-only option that drops a proposed neighboring shopping center.

A previous plan had both projects being built on the north end of town.

The meeting was aimed at finding solutions for going forward after the developers of both Walmart and The Annex reached an impasse in June on how to fund $3 million to $4.5 million of improvements to the Del Rio Road interchange with Highway 101. The parties have been meeting in closed-door talks since that time, but city staff announced last week that they don’t believe an agreement is forthcoming.

Wal-Mart Stores Inc. is proposing a commercial and residential project while the Santa Barbara-based Rottman Group wants to build The Annex shopping center next to it off Del Rio Road. Neither project has been approved. They are in a stage where consultants are studying how their developments could impact the area.

The actual item before the council was small — approving a $75,100 contract with a 10 percent fee to the city for processing to be funded by Wal-Mart Stores for further impact studies. But the meeting was consumed with concern that taxpayer dollars would be used to quell the dispute.

“We will actively oppose any efforts that end up with taxpayers footing the bill for this project,” Atascadero resident Tom Comar said.

He also presented a box of papers he said had 950 public signatures against the use of public funds and asked the council to sign pledges saying no future plans for such arise.

It’s unclear what the council chose to do with the pledges. In fact, council members didn’t make any comments on the topic before voting, aside from council member Jerry Clay noting they were just voting on the added contract.

The lack of discussion caused some audience concern at Tuesday night’s council meeting.“Basically what this says to me is their minds were made up,” Atascadero resident David Broadwater said after the meeting.

City staff said Monday that there are no such plans for the use of public money and that Wal-Mart Stores isn’t seeking taxpayer dollars to fund the impact study.

The results from the new contract will be presented to the public in six months as an amendment to an environmental review released in February analyzing how both developments could impact the area, including traffic.

Dropping The Annex in an alternative study doesn’t mean that the city nixed the shopping center’s plans, but was instead defined by city staff as a way to give the council and public more options in what alternative impacts could be.

An Annex-only option, which is also in the February study, wasn’t considered Tuesday because it’s believed that a Walmart store would be the main draw, city officials previously said.

After consulting with a company spokeswoman by phone after the meeting, Wal-Mart Stores attorney Ellen Berkowitz said the retailer is pleased with the council’s action.

She said the retailer will pay an estimated $1.7 million toward the improvements, but that “is not set in stone,” she said. That sum is a cost estimate based on what the consultants say is required by the retailer and the additional study could change it, although Berkowitz said she “doesn’t expect it to be less, but it could be more.”

Keith Mathias, a developer in the Rottman Group, didn’t speak at the meeting. But he said Monday that his company remains committed to building The Annex.

His group would pay about $1.5 million in traffic impact fees if both were built.