WARRENTON — The Warrenton Planning Commission will make a decision to grant or deny a land use permit for Walmart Nov. 15.
Expected to be made after the public hearing Thursday evening, the decision was delayed because of a request to leave the record open for testimony from an attorney for Clatsop Residents Against Walmart.
That record will be left open for the next seven days, then will allow seven days for rebuttals and an additional seven days for closing statements from the Walmart representatives.
That period ends Nov. 15 and the commission will meet at that time to reach a decision.
“I think that it’s an important thing that at the end of the day, this meeting is about two things that we’re talking about, the design and the variances,” said Paul Mitchell, chairman of the Planning Commission. To the design, he said, “I’m not comfortable with the way it looks today. So you’re going to have some work to do.”
During the three-hour meeting, Walmart was confirmed to be the applicant for a 153,000-square-foot retail store on U.S. Highway 101 near Costco. Walmart is expected to bring 300 jobs to Clatsop County, with an average wage of $13.04 per hour. It will provide groceries, a bakery, a pharmacy, home goods, apparel, sporting goods and lawn and garden care.
The Arkansas-based discount retail chain applied for variances that include lot line adjustments and reducing the number of bike racks required. By code the store is expected to have one bike space for every 10 parking stalls, which would mean 67 bike racks. It has asked for 28. Costco received the same variance when it was built, reducing its number from 70 to 10.
The city of Warrenton staff, led by Planning Director Skip Urling, recommended approving Walmart’s application with 15 conditions.
Right away, Greg Hathaway, a lawyer representing the applicants, said Walmart agreed to those conditions, which included installation of a traffic signal on Ensign Lane, agreement to five fire hydrants and fire apparatus access allowed in the “truck route” behind the building.
But a big issue for many opponents and members of the Warrenton Planning Commission included the design of the building, which will be backed up against the highway with a large wall between the store and the road.
“It looks like a prison,” commissioner Daryl Birney said of the design.
Mitchell added, “It’s not appealing.”
Concerns were also raised about the possibility of graffiti on the wall.
But over time, the trees that will be planted between the sidewalk and the wall will grow to conceal it, Bryan Dickerson of PacLand explained. Now that three weeks remain until a decision is made, Walmart representatives agreed to revisit the wall plans and look for a more appealing design.
But still, Mitchell asked why the building couldn’t be shifted to be more open to the community.
Future development behind the lot, Dickerson explained, “would not allow good flow” for shared access. It would also mean shoppers would have to go to the back of the building to turn left and get back on the highway from the parking lot, given the road median on Ensign Lane.
Mitchell said he wanted Warrenton not to be considered a place one drives through, but drives to. Seeing a wall and the butt of a building was not a way to welcome visitors, he said.
But while designers and commissioners focused on aesthetics, such as the color palette which will be earthtones – shades of brown and tan on the exterior and the wall – there were sighs and grumbles from the audience about the “ridiculous” conversation, that shifted to what the walls would contain once the podium was opened up for public comment.
“Much of the product line fosters a low quality of life because of the quality of the product,” Warrenton resident Del Corbett said, also noting Walmart’s labor practices. “They’re cheap, very cheap. Come to Walmart and you can get it cheap, and you take it home, and it’s broken and it ends up filling the landfill. For those reasons, and for many more, I urge denial for the application.”
Mitchell stopped Corbett half way through his testimony, trying to direct the conversation back to the land use issues and concerns about the design, rather than Walmart’s reputation.
But support from the audience, followed by an opinion of an attorney for the Clatsop Residents Against Walmart, allowed testimony to continue on the topic of the latter.
Mitchell did ask that the conversation remain civil.
A representative of North Coast Retail Center LLC, Wes Giesbrecht, expressed support of the project, saying that Walmart would bring the “critical mass” that many big stores look for before settling in the community. The property adjacent to where Walmart is proposed has been looked at by 100 retailers, Giesbrecht said, but without that big attraction, many have turned the site down. Giesbrecht was later asked what is proposed for the land behind Walmart. He said four or five companies were looking to build there, but did not name them. However, according to their website, northcoastretailcenter.com, a Marshall’s store is pending on the property.
Giesbrecht was one of two who voiced support of the project.
Nadia Gardner, a Cannon Beach resident, voiced opposition to Walmart. She said the proposal does not only affect Warrenton, but has implications countywide.
“This is not 1985,” Gardner said. “This is not Nebraska or Iowa. This is Oregon and here we do things differently, we fly with our own wings. ...
“Think about this as a piece of a puzzle, because we are dying of 1,000 cuts. Each one of these applications is wreaking havoc.”
She encouraged smart growth, rather than big development that “sucks the life out of small communities.” She also, as a scientist, said the tree choices for in front of the wall are not native to the Oregon Coast and would likely die of fungus from the wet conditions.
“I urge you that if you have to accept this application, help them make better choices,” she said.
The insignificant wetlands – deemed insignificant earlier this year after a lengthy Warrenton City Commission discussion – were not insignificant but necessary, she added.
But bottom line, she discouraged approval of the application as a whole. And if Walmart has to come to Warrenton, she said, make it a smaller store.
“Our communities can negotiate harder with these guys. They have all the money in the world, and they don’t give a crap about any of us, so, like in a lot of communities that fight them, they do smaller stores and we could do that, too. Why do we have to have a Super Walmart?,” she said.
Lawyer steps in
Comments continued opposed to the Walmart, including from Ken Helm, a lawyer representing Clatsop Residents Against Walmart, who said the application and discussion for approval was premature, as the applicant did not have a wetlands permit for the site in hand, which he said was a requirement of the city’s code.
Helm also said, as part of the city code, loading truck docks can not be put on the same side of the building as the highway and for the variances, the applicants needed to show hardships rather than inconvienence, such as the variance for the bike racks.
But Hathaway, during the rebuttal period, said that all of the discussion about Walmart and its practices were not relevant to the land use application. Hathaway said he has argued against Helm in many other similar cases, including in The Dalles and Hood River as recently as Monday. And in those communities, Walmart has often heard the same arguments.
“I’m not going to start talking about the statements that they make about Walmart that are incorrect, because most of them are,” Hathaway said. “This is not the first time I’ve heard all of this. Most of it’s inaccurate, but people believe it. And if they believe it, that’s fine. I can’t stop them from believing what they believe, even though it may not be accurate or it may not be true. But what I can say is that it’s not relevant.”
Not all opposition was directed at Walmart, however. Some was directed at the city and the planning commission; in comment after comment, dismay was expressed by a majority of those present that the applicant for the project on Highway 101 was never named until Thursday. A Walmart store was revealed to have been in the works for more than five years but the land use permit was applied for by PacLand, a Seattle-based development company.
“I’m not anti-development, not by any means,” said Warrenton business owner Krista Bingham. “But it’s important to know what else is coming. And I think it’s unfair we’re finding out now. ... It’s fair and right to let your constituents know what’s coming.”
She continued, “It’s only fair to tell the townspeople, not five years later. It’s too late, they’re coming, we get it. But be honest. Be transparent.”
Written comments can be submitted to the Warrenton Planning Commission until 5 p.m. Nov. 1. The address is City of Warrenton Planning Dept., P.O. Box 250, Warrenton, OR 97146.
This story originally appeared in Daily Astorian.