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Wal-Mart Trying to Put Plan on Ballot

Times Staff Writers

Wal-Mart Stores Inc. is seeking to bypass a hostile Inglewood City Council and take its plans for a giant new store directly to voters.

The world’s largest retailer began gathering signatures this week to force a popular vote on a shopping center, planned for a dirt lot next to Hollywood Park, where Wal-Mart wants to build its store.

Commercial developers have rarely used the initiative process to do an end run around local governments, California planning experts said Friday. More commonly, they said, initiatives are used by homeowner groups to block unwanted development.

The Wal-Mart initiative -- by a group called the Citizens Committee to Welcome Wal-Mart to Inglewood -- calls for building permits for the store to be issued without a public hearing or environmental impact study.

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“The reviewing official shall be required to issue the requested permit or permits without the exercise of any discretion and no development standards, criteria, requirements, procedures, mitigations or exactions shall be imposed,” the initiative says.

A simple majority of voters could approve the measure. But if it passed, it would require a two-thirds vote to repeal or amend it.

Wal-Mart has embarked on a major expansion into the grocery business in California, triggering stiff opposition from organized labor and other groups.

The chain’s foes said Friday that they were stunned by the initiative move -- particularly because Wal-Mart hasn’t tried to win permits through the normal planning process.

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“This is the most outrageous thing I’ve seen a corporation do in a low-income community,” said Madeline Janis-Aparicio, director of Los Angeles Alliance for a New Economy, an opponent of the Inglewood development. “It says to me they’re afraid of the public process.”

Wal-Mart has announced plans to build 40 super centers in California. Super centers sell groceries in addition to discount merchandise and compete with supermarket chains and their union workers. Wal-Mart stores are nonunion.

Although not planned as a super center, the Inglewood store could be expanded to sell groceries in the future, Wal-Mart officials say.

Robert McAdam, Wal-Mart vice president for state and local government relations, said the Bentonville, Ark.-based retailer decided to take its case to voters because it didn’t believe it would be treated fairly by the Inglewood council, which has made clear its opposition to the chain’s plans for an outlet.

“When people feel they’re not getting a fair shake with the legislative process, they take things to a vote of the people,” McAdam said. “That’s what the initiative process is about, having people petition for voter approval.... That’s fairly consistent with California tradition.”

McAdam said Wal-Mart went the initiative route once before, in 1999 in Eureka, Calif. Voters there rejected the measure.

Inglewood City Clerk Yvonne Horton couldn’t say Friday how many signatures would be needed to put the measure on the ballot, or when a vote might occur if the petition drive succeeded.

Wal-Mart spokesman Peter Kanelos says the company has 180 days from Aug. 14, when it filed papers to circulate petitions, to obtain the roughly 6,500 signatures of registered voters needed to qualify the measure for the March 2004 ballot.

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Though the initiative process has been widely used to stop unwanted construction, it’s not a tactic many companies have used to get a project off the ground, planning experts William J. Fulton of Solimar Research Group and Larry Kosmont of Kosmont Associates said.

“This is ballot-box zoning in reverse,” said Kosmont, who tracks development issues. “Instead of citizens bringing the initiative on, you have the retailer doing it. It’s the same vehicle, but it’s the first time I’ve heard of it being used like this.”

From Wal-Mart’s perspective, Kosmont said, “it’s a rational decision. The longer you go through the planning process, the greater opportunity you’re giving the opposition to fight you. Why not just go for the jugular and get the answer quickly?” The petition drive is the latest salvo in Wal-Mart’s battle with Inglewood.

Wal-Mart began scouting potential sites in Inglewood more than a year and a half ago, settling on the lot next to Hollywood Park.

The Inglewood City Council responded last October by passing a measure to prevent large discount merchants from selling a full line of groceries. The United Food and Commercial Workers local, which represents supermarket employees, helped draft the measure.

Soon after, Wal-Mart gathered enough signatures on petitions to force a public vote on the grocery measure.

And it threatened to sue the city, saying the council hadn’t followed proper procedures when it passed the measure.

In December, the council voted to overturn the measure, advised by the city attorney that the measure could be voided on procedural grounds.

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