Letters to the Editor

Wal-mart opposition led to cost overruns in Atascadero

As a sitting Atascadero City Council member not up for re-election, I would like to respond to the multiple articles and opinion pieces written by critics of Atascadero and its leadership.

First, there are two projects in question, the Wal-Mart at the corner of Del Rio Road and El Camino Real and the Annex across the street. The Wal-Mart project has been formally approved and is able to pull permits and start construction immediately. Wal-Mart has committed to pay its full allocated share for required road improvements as agreed upon in 2012.

The Annex project is separate from Wal-Mart; the property has just been acquired by a new developer from SLO; nothing is written in concrete on this project. The Annex project, if constructed as proposed, will require major improvements to the Highway 101 interchange at Del Rio Road.

The City Council was given preliminary cost estimates of $3.75 million for 101 interchange improvements in 2008. These estimates were revised upward to $4.5 to $5 million by 2012. This data was reviewed by the city engineer, other city staff, the Planning Commission and citizens through two years of public hearings before the Wal-Mart phase of the project was approved by the council in 2012. The Annex project is unresolved.

Based upon estimates, it was expected that the Wal-Mart and Annex projects together would pay $5.3 million in traffic impact fees, which are calculated based upon the square footage of proposed construction. These fees are required to have a legal “nexus” to the project and must account for existing impacts, such as current traffic loads without the proposed developments. That is how percentages of responsibility are legally allocated. It would be illegal to impose 100 percent of the costs of road improvements to Del Rio Road solely upon Wal-Mart, as many Wal-Mart critics demand. We use El Camino Real now without a Wal-Mart, thus Wal-Mart is responsible only for its additional impact.

The traffic impact fees for the Del Rio projects are the highest such fees of any box store built in SLO County, $20.66 per square foot. By comparison, Target on Los Osos Valley Road paid SLO $18.80 per square foot in traffic impact fees.

Revised estimates received by Atascadero in September escalated the costs to approximately $12 million. The costs were primarily a result of new state mandates. New building codes demanded extensive additional grading and wider traffic circles; this required purchase of more land. The state has instituted new drainage requirements and disability regulations mandated widening of the overpass to meet new compliance standards. These costs would not have been required had the project not been delayed by organized opposition and extensive litigation attempting to block the project.

Public officials are not “clairvoyant” but they’re responsible for everything that occurs or doesn’t occur on their watch. It’s easy to say what should have been done; the reality is that now we have to determine ways to bring down the costs and pay for it, if we decide to go forward. We have options. The question is do we have the will — or will we capitulate to a minority that has exercised every option to sabotage the city’s efforts to generate a strong economy and generate desperately needed revenues for a depleted budget?