By unanimous vote, the council Tuesday approved a change to the city’s municipal code that will require conditional use permits (CUPs) for all proposed retail stores of 75,000 square feet or more. Previously, zoning on the seven parcels where such stores are allowed required developers to undergo a design review only.
“I think it’s a win, at least for tonight,” said Brentwood resident Kathy Griffin, one of several speakers at the meeting who have strenuously objected to the prospect of a big-box store such as Walmart being built on the 65-acre Sciortino Ranch property at the corner of Brentwood Boulevard and Sand Creek Road. “It’s another layer of review for the community.”
By adding the CUP requirement, the city will now be able to better mitigate impacts a project might make on traffic, urban decay and public safety. CUPs, which include public hearings, can add thousands of dollars and several weeks or months to the approval process, according to city staff.
But the damage that could be done to Brentwood by a large-scale retailer in the wrong place merits the additional review, said resident John Johnson, no matter how much such a store might mean in tax revenue.
“We have an image that we sell that’s worth more than what any big-box store can bring to Brentwood,” he said.
Not everyone was happy with the new law. Reed Oñate of New Urban Community Partners (NUCP), owners of Sciortino Ranch, told the council that the restrictions put a damper on bringing an anchor tenant to the project, which also includes apartments and other retail and office uses. In addition to tax revenues it would bring to the city, Oñate said, an anchor is needed to attract other stores, restaurants and businesses to a part of town that has been long neglected.
Also, he said, the state’s elimination of redevelopment districts that helped enable the city’s downtown improvements means that, without fees from development, there is no way to fund the Brentwood Boulevard Master Plan, which is aimed at improving the blighted northern entrance to the city.
The possibility that a Walmart superstore might be part of the plan for Sciortino Ranch came to light last year, triggering public outcry. Concern for the impact such a store might make on the newly overhauled downtown core less than a mile away, as well as the neighborhoods in the Sciortino Ranch area, resulted in a special council meeting held late last year.
At that meeting, council members learned that not only was no CUP required on the Sciortino property, none were required on any of the other six similarly zoned properties in the city. The council directed the city’s Planning Commission to review the policy on large-scale retailers, but with two commissioners stepping down due to possible conflicts of interest, that body was unable to reach a consensus on how to proceed. The matter was sent back to the council without a recommendation.
The city staff’s review divided large-scale retailers into five groups, including club stores, memberships stores and combination grocery/retail stores. The recommendation from staff was to require CUPs on combination stores of 90,000 square feet or larger. Currently, only three stores in the city are that large: The Home Depot (140,000 square feet), WinCo (100,000) and Kohl’s (96,000). The next largest is the Balfour Road Safeway at 66,000 square feet.
In the scenario suggested by staff, large retailers not selling both groceries and other products could still locate in the city after undergoing a design review only.
The council, however, chose to cut the square footage needed to trigger a CUP to 75,000 square feet, and to apply the new regulation to all large retailers, regardless of type.
Prior to the council vote, Brentwood businessman and developer John Casey voiced his opposition to the new regulation, saying that businesses are already leaving California because of onerous regulations and high taxes. Adding the CUP step could result in less interest in Brentwood, he said, which was “like playing chicken” with the city’s economic future.
NUCP attorney Ed Schaefer said the reviews the property had already undergone, including a “detailed environmental impact report,” should be enough. He added that changing the rules after NUCP had spent thousands of dollars and several years complying with the existing regulations was wrong. Other potential projects might shy away because of the “precedent of uncertainty” that the city might “throw another monkey wrench into the process.”
Others discounted the impact the change would make. Laine Lawrence, a former long-time Brentwood Planning Commissioner, spoke in favor of CUPs, saying quality developments will still come forward. “If it’s a good project, (a CUP) isn’t going to stop it,” she said. “I don’t think this would hurt the city at all.”
The potential that the new law would have a chilling effect on the city’s economic development was acknowledged by Councilman Steve Barr, as was the possible lost tax revenue that, if it continues, could eventually lead to budget problems and reduction of city services, he said. Those risks were worth taking, however, if that’s what was required to more tightly control the impacts large projects could make on the city and its residents.
Alex Greenwood, Brentwood’s Economic Development manager, said the change could diminish interest in Brentwood, and noted that “there are very few retail opportunities out there currently.” He added, however, that due to the city’s established desirability, a “clean, efficient and professional CUP process would not necessarily be a deal breaker for all these types of retailers.”