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Wednesday, Dec 18 2013 06:00 AM

Commission approves Walmart project, revised EIR in 3-2 vote

Opposition voices plans to appeal decision

Walmart is one step closer to breaking ground on a new supercenter in Tehachapi after the Planning Commission approved the building project and its revised Environmental Impact Report on Monday, Dec. 9.

Two of the five commissioners voted in opposition. Sonja Wilson and Marisa Folse cited inconsistent or incomplete data in the final draft of the revised EIR as reasons not to move forward.

Wilson voted in favor of the project when it was first brought to the commission in January 2011.

"I've had more time to think about it," Wilson said after the meeting.

Among her concerns was increased traffic volume.

Seven intersections which the EIR identified as problematic are controlled by either CalTrans or Kern County. Included in that list are the intersections at Tucker Road/Valley Boulevard and Tucker Road/Red Apple Road.

During her comments before the vote, Wilson said, "Both CalTrans and the county, I believe, have to amend some plans, amend some private priorities, in order to allow those to get done. I'm concerned that that is not going to happen for awhile and that Tucker Road is going to be quite a mess."

Patrick Carrick, the attorney working with the city on compiling the EIR, addressed Wilson's concerns.

"If it is within the control of the city, then the city can mitigate it and therefore it's mitigatable," Carrick said. "If it is not within the control of the city but it is on the regional traffic improvement list, the mitigation, once again, will get done... The city does not have the power to make other government entities make those improvements."

Because the city does not have jurisdiction over those intersections, the commission voted on adopting "overriding considerations" as part of the measures. Under state environmental law, such a vote is needed because the impact cannot be mitigated.

Walmart will be responsible for installing two lights at the entrances and exits to the shopping center. The supercenter will be located behind Tehachapi Junction, facing Tucker Road. The business giant already owns the land.

The company will also be required to pay for construction of a median on Tucker Road with some reimbursement from the city over time. Community Development Director David James, who made the presentation to the commission, said the city is in negotiations with CalTrans for how much landscaping will be allowed on the divider.

Folse asked whether the median installation was a definite, to which James replied affirmatively.

"The median is part of the project, no different than paving the parking lot," he said.

Commissioners Charles White, Daryl Christensen and Mariana Teel expressed support for the project and voted accordingly.

Although previous meetings for discussion of the Walmart project drew crowds in the hundreds, barely 100 people attended this latest meeting. City officials expected a larger crowd, evidenced by their decision to hold the hearing in the Monroe High School gym.

Approximately two dozen attendees addressed the commissioners prior to the vote, and most voiced support of Walmart.

Kirk Davenport, a Stallion Springs resident, was one of the supporters.

"We all are getting pretty tired of going out of town," he said. "I myself have spent a ton of money this year both driving and purchasing out of town... I think that we are all, as a whole, looking forward to progress that helps the city and provides us a little more convenience, a little more savings, and of course improvement for the people who can't find work, particularly those that are young... they need places to start."

Commonly cited by Walmart supporters was the argument that shoppers who commute to shop at Walmart also will spend money at other local businesses, including restaurants, movie theaters and hair dressers.

Tehachapi First, a local organization that opposes Walmart, was represented at the meeting by Henry Shaeffer and Christopher Zehnder. Zehnder asked the commissioners whether they had received a letter from the group's attorney, Mark Wolfe, which asked them to postpone a decision to allow more time for community members to review the finalized draft of the revised EIR.

The final draft was released for public review on Thursday, Dec. 5, just four days before the public hearing. Although the document is available on the city's website, City Hall's regular hours only allowed for visits during Thursday and Monday.

"The [Final EIR] contains dozens of changes to the revised draft EIR and more than 100 pages of comment response and new analysis," the letter states. "It is unreasonable to expect the public to review and digest such a large volume of new material in so short a period of time."

"Our lawyer believes [there are] grounds to appeal," Zehnder said in a phone interview. "The initial assessment is that the EIR is still deficient."

Zehnder added that he thinks the approval should be left to the elected officials on the City Council, and not to appointed officials on the Planning Commission.

The commission first approved Walmart in January 2011. That action was appealed to the council which also approved it. A lawsuit was filed by Tehachapi First and the Kern County Superior Court ordered the city to address traffic, water and noise, resulting in the revised EIR certified by the commission last week.

Any appeals must be filed within 14 days of the commission's vote, otherwise the city will present the document back to the court for the final stamp of approval. An appeal will send the issue to the City Council.

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