If the Atascadero Planning Commission’s 4-1 decision in favor of Walmart is any indication, the City Council will give its blessing to a Walmart/Annex project Tuesday night.
In doing so, the council will end a nearly seven-year debate over Walmart.
While we look forward to resolution of an issue that’s dragged on too long, we have lingering concerns about the cost-sharing plan to fund road improvements needed at Del Rio Road and Highway 101.
Walmart will pay $2.2 million, while the city has agreed to “front” the remaining $2.3 million to pay for roundabouts at Del Rio — work estimated at $4.5 million.
The city has $800,000 available in traffic improvement fees to put toward its share; city staff recommends borrowing the remaining $1.5 million from the wastewater treatment fund. The loan would be reimbursed as traffic fees from The Annex and other future projects flow into city coffers.
There is an element of risk in that assumption, especially because the would-be developer of The Annex lost most of the property in a bank foreclosure. Now, the bank is looking for an interested buyer to carry the project forward.
Under the circumstances, we had hoped that Walmart would step up and offer to advance the money to build the roundabouts — especially because it had made such an overture earlier in the application process.
Obviously, that’s not going to happen.
Because the city seems determined to go forward anyway, we urge the council to take every possible step to protect the city and its taxpayers.
For example, how about a contingency plan to repay the wastewater-treatment fund, in the event that traffic fees from The Annex and other future projects don’t materialize in a reasonable period of time? Ideally, that plan should include some reimbursement from Walmart.
And what happens if traffic improvements exceed the estimated $4.5 million for roundabouts?
City officials point out that Walmart has agreed to pay as much as $200,000 to help cover cost overruns.
But why cap it at a particular amount? Why not specify that Walmart will pay its “fair share” percentage of whatever the final figure may be?
That would be at least a partial answer to opponents, who point out that road improvements could wind up costing much more than $4.5 million.
They claim the cost could be as high as $10 million or more if Caltrans were to require a more costly solution, such as widening the Del Rio Road overpass.
Granted, that worst-case scenario seems remote.
On Friday, Caltrans spokeswoman Susana Cruz told The Tribune that the agency is “OK with the current configuration” if only Walmart is built, meaning no additional Del Rio Road/101 improvements would be needed to a accommodate aWalmart-only option. If The Annex is built, “we may suggest a roundabout,” she said.
And as Tribune writer Tonya Strickland reports today, Atascadero city staff is saying that Caltrans has been “receptive to roundabouts.”
Those are good indications that roundabouts are acceptable. But for the record, we urge Caltrans to speak up now if it has reason to believe they won’t work.
We also urge the City Council to carefully look at whether the city’s financial interests have been protected as much as possible before signing off on a “cost-sharing” proposal.
The city has been waiting seven years for Walmart; it won’t hurt to wait alittle longer to ensure that taxpayers aren’t assuming undue financial risk.
Editorials are the opinion of The Tribune.