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Environmentalism…or Elitism?
by Ron Davis

Further construction of two shopping centers in California is on hold until that state’s courts decide if the centers comply with environmental-impact regulations.

The two shopping centers, both located in Bakersfield less than four miles from each other, are already operational in part. Moreover, local planning and city council officials have approved completion following public hearings.

Opposing the projects, however, is a well-organized group of citizens. Group members, many of whom represent merchants within the vicinity of the shopping centers, argue that the area would suffer from the centers’ presence. Specifically, they point out, both would contain Wal-Mart Supercenter stores, whose competition would result in the closing of nearby stores, which in turn would create urban decay.

In response, local government officials and the centers’ developers note that an environmental-impact study was completed for the projects, and that study certified construction of the centers.

The citizens group contends, however, that the environmental-impact study is flawed in that it does not consider the total impact of the centers on the local area. The group also criticized Wal-Mart for its “undesirable” traits as a member of the community and as an employer.

In ruling to rescind the findings of the environmental-impact study and delay the shopping centers’ construction, a California appellate court explained, “The environmental report failed to consider the projects’ individual and cumulative potential to indirectly cause urban/suburban decay by precipitating a downward spiral of store closures and long-term vacancies in existing shopping centers. Furthermore, the cumulative impacts analyses are defective because they did not treat the other shopping center as a relevant project or consider the combined environmental impacts of the two shopping centers. Finally, failure to correlate the acknowledged adverse air-quality impacts to resulting adverse effects on human respiratory health was erroneous.”

The court then reprimanded the citizens group for its “elitist premise” about Wal-Mart. Stated the judges, “We do not endorse that so-called ‘big-box’ retailers are undesirable in a community and are inherently inferior to smaller merchants. Nor do we affirm the view that Wal-Mart is a destructive force that threatens the viability of local communities. We rebuff any transparent attempt to demonize this corporation.” (Bakersfield Citizens for Local Control v. City of Bakersfield, 22 Cal.Rptr.3d 203])

Decision: December 2004
Published: January 2005



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