Wednesday, Nov. 29, 2006 | Before a crowd that reached nearly 350 spectators at its apex, a cadre of residents, business owners, environmentalists and lobbyists pitched to the City Council the good and bad of Wal-Mart.

Critics took the time to castigate the world’s largest retailer for generating traffic congestion and low-wage jobs while depleting neighborhoods of their mom-and-pop retailers. Supporters of the chain of discount stores called the company’s low prices a boon for modest income-earners.

One man even said he owed his very decency to the retail giant.

“If it weren’t for Wal-Mart, I’d be standing here naked,” said Guy Preuss, a Paradise Hills resident who was clothed in a bargain-priced pair of shorts, a T-shirt and a tan vest. “I buy everything from Wal-Mart.”

While Wal-Mart may have been able to provide Preuss with his wardrobe, the world’s largest retail chain will be barred from vending such things as fresh fruit just aisles away from Apple iPods and Blackberry handheld communicators in the company’s San Diego stores.

The City Council voted to ban controversial big-box, retail-and-grocery store hybrids such as Wal-Mart Supercenters from setting up shop within city limits after a four-hour hearing Tuesday. The ban’s supporters cited concerns that allowing the behemoth stores to sell food products in addition to their normal wares creates a demand that congests the surrounding area with excessive traffic.

Altered several times during its three-year journey through the legislative process, the law will ban stores that are larger than 90,000 square feet from using more than 10 percent of their floor-area for the sales of groceries. Stores that sell food in bulk, such as Costco, are exempt from the ban.

The City Attorney’s Office most recently tweaked the law to more closely mirror an anti-superstore ordinance that the city of Turlock successfully defended at the state Court of Appeals. Wal-Mart, which argues the law illegally limits commerce and competition, appealed that ruling, but the California Supreme Court turned down the request in July.

The 5-3 council vote fell along party lines. Democratic Councilmembers Scott Peters, Toni Atkins, Tony Young, Donna Frye and Ben Hueso voted for the ban. Republican Councilmen Kevin Faulconer, Brian Maienschein and Jim Madaffer voted against the law.

Councilmembers who supported the ban said they didn’t want to characterize the debate as being partisan, or along the familiar storyline that pits workers against business. Instead, officials and the four-hour meeting’s attendees both pointed to the varying arguments that were made – for and against the ban.

“I think that, to make it such a simple discussion … it’s really insulting to people to do that,” Councilwoman Toni Atkins said.

Atkins and other supporters of the ban argued that Wal-Mart Supercenters would pull commercial activity away from traditional grocers that often serve as the anchor for neighborhood shopping centers, where small businesses are often established.

The ban’s proponents also chided Wal-Mart for its reputation of paying its workers low wages with substandard health benefits; others spoke about the superstores’ impacts on San Diego’s local neighborhoods, especially with respect to traffic and “community character.”

“I can’t find anyone in my neighborhoods who wants these in their neighborhoods,” Peters said, noting that the topic of traffic relief is often a priority for residents of the northwestern suburbs that he represents.

Councilman Ben Hueso said that an existing Wal-Mart in Ocean Views Hills, which is not a Supercenter, already creates too much traffic for the area. He claimed that fees that were generated from development in the border-area community had to be diverted away from plans for a fire station and a park in order to pay for the traffic accommodations that are needed because of the Wal-Mart there.

Still, opponents of the ban harped on the social implications of the new law, arguing that the council should not determine where residents do their grocery shopping.

“Land use should not make a political statement about a certain business model,” Mayor Jerry Sanders said. Sanders does not have a vote on the matter, but has vowed to veto the legislation, a tack that serves as a formality because only the five votes that originally passed the law are needed to override a mayoral veto.

Sanders did win unanimous council support for a companion set of big-box regulations he proposed, such as requiring developers of the large stores to adhere to stricter guidelines for landscaping, design and public review. Developers said they preferred the mayor’s guidelines to a version that was previously contemplated by the council, which required more public review and set limits on the size of buildings in certain planning zones.

The mayor, like other opponents of the ban, also said he feared that the cash-strapped city would lose out on potential sales tax revenue, and that Wal-Mart would lure city residents to Supercenters in neighboring cities. The ban would put San Diego at an economic disadvantage, he said.

Peters pointed to a report the council’s Office of the Independent Budget Analyst released in September that said the superstores were revenue neutral. The report also states that profits derived from large, corporate stores are often exported outside the city, while a dollar spent at a small shop in San Diego is more likely to be kept within the city.

Wal-Mart’s supporters reiterated during the meeting that the ordinance was “anti-business.” The company engineered an aggressive public relations campaign over the past few weeks, urging residents to call the offices of council members to express their frustration with a possible ban on the Supercenters. Peters’ office reported that 600 different residents from throughout San Diego County called his office in the last week.

Some senior citizens also reported that Wal-Mart representatives invited them to lunch if they would attend Tuesday’s council meeting. Several of the store’s employees said they were paid for a full day for their attendance, even though their activity appeared to be limited to wearing a giant “Let US choose” sticker and standing when Wal-Mart’s spokesman asked them to during his presentation to council.

“I got paid and I don’t have to work,” said one Wal-Mart employee, who refused to identify himself.

Please contact Evan McLaughlin directly with your thoughts, ideas, personal stories or tips. Or send a letter to the editor.

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