ENCINITAS — Dozens of residents turned out during the regular City Council meeting Sept. 28 to show their dissatisfaction with the city’s process of issuing Walmart a building permit.
The retail giant was given the green light to convert the former Home Depot Expo Sept. 6 this year after negotiating space issues and parking requirements with the city since July 2010.
No changes to the exterior of the building except for signage are expected. However, because of the city code’s parking requirements for commercial occupants, Walmart will have to leave 8,664 square feet of the 104,759-square-foot building vacant.
Sensing a hostile crowd, the city’s planning and building staff told the council that there was little it could do to prohibit Walmart from moving into the space still leased by Home Depot.
“The city has very limited permitting authority in tenant changes,” said planner J. Dichoso.
In fact, several residents derided the process of issuing the permit without public input. Joann Hoffman called it the “Walmart sneak in” and told the council she was troubled that the applicant did the parking study.
“I feel like it’s a conflict of interest,” she said. Typically the applicant is required by code to prepare a traffic study according to city staff.
Hoffman, who has been a vocal opponent of the Walmart move, said she was never told about her right to appeal the permit issuance or that the ability to do so expired 15 days after the issuance of the permit.
She asked that the time length to appeal be extended in this case, given the delay in bringing the issue to the public’s attention during a council meeting.
City Attorney Glen Sabine said a civil code provision at the state level sets the appeal process at 90 days, but that municipalities have the ability to change the timeframe.
“It’s the rule we have in place right now and with that rule we have to follow it,” Sabine said.
Hoffman also expressed a concern that such a large retailer would bring additional traffic to the already crowded Leucadia Boulevard intersection.
“The major thing for me is the traffic,” she said. “I just think it’s good for us to know how all these things roll out.”
James Cowles lives within walking distance to the intersection. He predicted that traffic would increase dramatically.
“Home Expo parking is not going to be the same as Walmart use,” he told the council. He said the number of cars in the parking lot could be counted on one hand when the specialty, interior design store owned by Home Depot was operating in the space. “That won’t be the case with Walmart,” he warned.
“It’s telling that Encinitas gets 15 days and the rest of the world gets 90 (to appeal),” he said. “You owe it to the citizens to let that happen.”
Cowles said the council and the city should have advertised the permitting process with Walmart. “To carry it under the radar is really disingenuous,” he said.
The city requires a minimum of 627 parking spaces in the existing retail center according to planning director Patrick Murphy. Those spaces will be shared with REI and a few restaurants currently in the center.
Rachelle Collier, a Leucadia resident, was frustrated with the process. “You’ve given them a permit and now we’re here telling you we don’t want Walmart,” she told the council.
Sheila Cameron, a former mayor and councilwoman, said that maintaining community character was one of the reasons the city was incorporated 25 years ago, adding that Walmart didn’t fit that criteria. She also warned that Walmart allowed overnight RV parking.
“We don’t have a clear regulation,” Murphy said when asked about overnight RV parking on commercial property by Councilwoman Teresa Barth. He said the formula of five parking stalls per 1000 square feet is the parking standard the city uses to determine the required number of spaces needed in a commercial setting.
Barth questioned whether there were any options to extend the appeal time period. “There’s not,” answered Sabine.
“The city doesn’t choose in this type of free market zoning,” said Councilwoman Kristin Gaspar. She conceded she’d like to see a movie theater in the space, but said that’s not a decision for the council to make.
“We have to remain fair, we do have to remain consistent,” she said in creating policy.
“We all know Walmart is divisive wherever it goes,” Barth said. “There’s nothing we can do unfortunately at this point.”
Barth said the general plan speaks more often to new development rather than the “repurposing” of existing developments. She urged the public to get involved in thinking about making those changes to the general plan update that is currently in draft form.
“I am extremely frustrated,” Barth said. “There is no action unfortunately for us to take tonight.”