Updated meeting report: The Tehachapi Planning Commission gave the green light to the construction of a 165,000-square-foot Walmart Supercenter Monday night, Jan. 31, in what long-time staffers said may have been the largest turnout for a city hearing in history.
The bleachers at the Tehachapi High School gym couldn’t hold the approximately 700 members of the public, who spilled into the lobby.
It was quite a change for the Planning Commission, which at a regular meeting at the BeeKay Theatre may find half a dozen people in the audience, or none at all.
The commission voted 4-1 in favor of both resolutions on the agenda – one to certify that the Walmart project meets California Environmental Quality Act requirements and one to approve the site and architectural plan.
Commissioner Marisa Folse broke ranks with her colleagues in voting no.
She declined to offer a comment following the final vote, which came at 11:15 p.m.
Folse, who is known for detecting minute typos and errors in complicated planning documents, had asked challenging questions of the Walmart consultants at the hearing and had submitted 31 detailed written questions that required answers in the Final Environmental Impact Report.
Throughout the entire planning process, the commissioners had not indicated how they would vote.
Opponents who are determined to stop the project must file an appeal with the city within 14 days of the action (by Feb. 14). The fee to file an appeal is $1,561.
Objections stated by public speakers focused on the impact the mammoth retailer will have on small-town Tehachapi, including potential loss of existing retailers and their jobs.
“I have no doubt Walmart will put me out of business,” said a store owner. “Tehachapi is just being greedy. It just wants the sales tax.”
Referring to Walmart as “a source for cheap Chinese junk,” a woman said, “We are too good for Walmart.”
Another opponent asked where Walmart is going to dump all its trash.
A Tehachapi business owner said he has low cost merchandise and personal service.
“We have people to help you,” he said.
A woman said that she moved to Tehachapi because, “I loved what this town didn’t have.”
She suggested a use for the building if Walmart goes under.
“If they don’t sell enough Chinese underwear, make it an indoor rodeo when it’s empty.”
Another woman, who said that a Walmart near her former home in Oxnard was "filthy" and not kept clean, challenged the commissioners: “Walmart is going to come in. I don’t think you’ve got big enough shoulders to say no.”
Supporters pointed out that popular markets and drug stores that once existed in Tehachapi are no longer here, elbowed out by larger stores that have moved in.
“It’s amazing we’re talking about competition being bad,” said a man. “Let’s drive down the cost. We have to become more self-sufficient.”
Several people listed the buildings in town that used to be grocery stores but are now used for other purposes.
It’s change, one man said. “It’s modern times.”
“I need a place like Walmart up here, I really do,” said a woman.
A man drew some heckles when he suggested that the effort to keep Walmart out comes from “a severe leftist philosophy” that hates capitalism.
He said that if the woman who spoke earlier loses her business, it’s because she does not apply “the Walmart principle of fair profit margins.”
Another woman said she would like to be able to shop “without bouncing all around town” or going down the hill where prices are more competitive.
“We have the freedom to choose, paid for by a lot of blood,” she said.
“They bought the property and they have the right to build on it,” said a Tehachapi business owner.
Several Walmart employees praised the company.
Walmart enabled her “to raise my children with dignity,” a woman employee said. “It provides opportunities for those who may not have had a chance in life.”
“This is a beautiful community,” said a male Walmart manager who lives in Tehachapi. “A lot of youngsters may need an opportunity.”
The public hearing – which was continued from an earlier session Jan. 10 – followed a presentation by city staff and consultants associated with the project.
The Walmart development plan took three years to get from the initial application to the final vote.
“It was a long time coming,” said Community Development Director David James after the vote. “It was not rushed. Sometimes you’ve got to take it slow and methodical.”
Before the vote and after asking his own list of detailed questions, Commissioner Charles White thanked all those who had spoken at the hearing.
“Strong sentiments were expressed on both sides,” he said. “This is a major decision. I have diligently researched this and I assume the others have as well.”
He pointed out that Tucker Road was laid out for commercial development, with appropriate water and sewer infrastructure.
If it is approved, he said, the community can shop or not shop at Walmart or organize boycotts about the manufacturing and labor practices of the store.
“The community needs to be watching Walmart,” he said. “I hope they will be responsive to the community. They could be a valuable partner to the community.”
“This is the greatest show of public interest in a project we have had in a long time,” said Commissioner Sonja Wilson prior to the vote. “That you are still sitting here at 10 minutes after 11 shows interest.”
“This is a difficult decision,” said Commissioner Rachel Rudd, the newest on the panel and an environmental consultant. “I am happy with the building site and the conditions. If the city doesn’t go forward, there’s a good chance it could be in an area where the city has no control and no sales tax revenues.”
“We have spent a great deal of time so we would understand,” said Commission Chairman Kim Nixon.
“Staff has given us ample time to review everything. We thank the public who expressed their concern.
“The job before the planning commission is not based on emotions. It is based on the ordinances and the law.”
Not giving up
Opponents of the Walmart were not deterred by the outcome.
“I don’t think it’s a done deal,” said Shannon Turner, who just several weeks ago began collecting anti-Walmart signatures, which now total 700. “I’m not giving up.”
The opponents are cheered by the experience of some other cities that have diverted Walmarts that were in the planning process.
“They want us to believe there is no fighting the largest corporation that’s ever existed,” she said.
Turner’s organization, called Tehachapi First, is one of several groups seeking cohesion and traction in its mission to deflect the mega-retailer.
“I’m disappointed, but it’s not the end of the fight,” said Christopher Zehnder after the vote.
Zehnder said the decision should be up to elected officials, not those who have been appointed, as the planning commissioners have been.
“It should go before the City Council. Citizens should be able to address elected officials.”
Zehnder was heartened by what he saw as a groundswell of support for the anti-Walmart cause.
“There has been a sudden coalescing of people who are not content,” he said. “I didn’t expect this at all.”
Another group, called Tehachapi Citizens for Responsible Development, has been organized by Ray Bilger.
The five commissioners listened for almost two-and-a-half hours to 61 public speakers, from 7:30 to 9:55 p.m., after which they asked questions and sorted out some housekeeping corrections in the Walmart proposal.
Of the 61 speakers, 31 opposed the project, 24 were supporters and seven expressed concerns or reservations that did not fall clearly on either side, giving the opposition at least a 4 to 3 edge.
The 20 members of the public who spoke at an earlier hearing Jan. 10 fell 3 to 1 in favor, and those who had spoken at the first hearing and wanted another turn Jan. 31 had to wait until everyone else had spoken. One person, William Nelson, spoke in opposition to the project at both hearings and at the Jan. 10 meeting said he believes Nixon and White should recuse themselves from deliberation on the project due to a conflict of interest.
Chairman Kim Nixon cautioned the audience not to applaud or shout, and they followed instructions for the most part. Several hundred people remained by the time the commission voted.
While the public speakers – especially the opponents – had expressed their opinions with passion, there were no emotional outbursts as the vote came quietly.
Tehachapi Police Chief Jeff Kermode was on site with School Resource Officer Stacy Arebalo, Sergeant Kevin Paille and two reserve officers, and reported no problems.
Links to earlier Tehachapi News stories concerning the Walmart project (not necessarily a complete list; searcg :Walmart' on home page for more):