Big-Box Bingo

North Bay Bohemian
News and Features
March 5, 2008

Big-Box Bingo: Petaluma Grapples with Deciding
the Entire Impact-both Fiscal and Communal-of
Construction.

True Cost

Petaluma Considers Evaluating Economic Impacts

By Patricia Lynn Henley

Everyone wants to make prudent financial
decisions, both individually and on a
community-wide level. But what’s the best way to
go about it? How much do officials need to know
to make a decision?

Nowadays developers expect to do an environmental
impact report (EIR) for any large-scale
construction project. But are physical results
like noise or traffic and the ecological balance
the only things decision-makers should evaluate
to determine if a proposal will help or harm the
local community? In Petaluma, activists are
proposing requiring a community impact report
(CIR) to assess the true fiscal costs and
benefits of potential projects.

Environmental impact reports have entered the
standard public lexicon. Are CIRs the next step?
“Twenty-five or 30 years ago, the environmental
impact report was also a new tool, and now it’s
standard,” asserts Marty Bennett, a Santa Rosa
Junior College instructor and co-chairman of the
Sonoma County Living Wage Coalition, part of the
group that’s urging Petaluma to adopt the CIR
requirement. “From my point of view, 25 years
down the road, we will say that a CIR has become
standard in the approval process for new
developments. That will be a huge step forward.”

But Petaluma resident and Sonoma County Planning
Commission member Don Bennett (no relation)
thinks that’s a bad idea. Community impact
reports, he says, would be used as “a tool to
keep things from happening within the community.”
He argues that the proposal is anti-chain stores
and anti-big-box retailers.

“It comes down to a philosophical thing, whether
you think the role of government is to control
business and management, and who you’re managing
it for,” he says. “Who’s going to decide who you
want in? That’s the problem. Whose will do you
impose?”

Cities such as Los Angeles and San Jose already
require CIRs as part of the approval process for
major projects. Usually less than 50 pages, a CIR
looks at five main impacts: fiscal, employment,
affordable housing, neighborhood needs and smart
growth. Unlike an EIR, a CIR isn’t binding and
doesn’t require mitigation of any impacts.

“For me, [a CIR] is a win-win for both sides,”
says Melissa Abercrombie of the Petaluma
Neighborhood Association. “You look at the
information, you weigh it and you figure out what
works.”

There’s an urban-growth boundary to protect
Petaluma against sprawl, Abercrombie points out.
“Any project that’s built within that should be
the best, because it’s a limited amount of space.”

Petaluma is already looking at plans for new
Target and Lowe’s stores within city limits.
Among other items, a CIR would evaluate the
number and types of jobs, including salary
levels, that they would bring to the area. It
would look at whether they would bring new sales
tax revenues to city coffers or just cannibalize
the sales taxes already being collected by other,
usually smaller stores.

For Abercrombie, a CIR is just a way of looking
at the big picture before making a decision. It’s
similar to what developers do before deciding to
build a project, she argues, and isn’t at all
anti-development. “I would welcome a development
that I thought would benefit our community, and I
don’t think analyzing that makes it not happen.”

But Don Bennett sees a CIR requirement as a
“fact-finding thing to determine what you don’t
want in your community.” The CIR proposal, he
asserts, is being supported by those who don’t
want more chain stores in Petaluma. But if a lot
of folks didn’t like big-box retailers, he says,
they wouldn’t exist.

“If the majority of people didn’t want to shop in
those places, they couldn’t keep their doors
open.”

In his view, it’s more important for people to be
able to shop, work and live in Petaluma. A CIR,
he argues, is an attempt to have the government
decide what can be built on private property
based on the social aspects of the project.

But Abercrombie sees things differently.

“A CIR is just a tool so we can have a clear picture for our decision
making.”

The coalition presented its CIR proposal to the
Petaluma City Council in late January. Coalition
members are now working with city staff to answer
a number of questions raised by the council
members, including how much CIRs cost and how
they’ve been implemented in other communities.

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