Editorial: Superstore rule isn't working out for city

Published: Wednesday, May. 29, 2013 - 12:00 am | Page 10A

There are reasons to be concerned about the likes of Wal-Mart – big-box stores that pay low wages so they can undercut local businesses.

But a land use ordinance is not the right vehicle for that debate. The Sacramento City Council should listen to its Planning and Design Commission, which is overwhelmingly recommending that it repeal a requirement that proposed superstores undergo a complex economic impact analysis, including wage and benefit differences with existing retailers.

The edict, enacted in 2006, has been a bust – ineffective and harmful to the city's economy at the same time.

While the ordinance applies to any retail store exceeding 90,000 square feet with more than 10 percent of the space for groceries, it exempts membership stores that are similar, such as Costco. Companies can get around the rules by opening grocery stores in the same shopping center as their general store.

The rule hasn't stopped city residents from shopping at superstores, but has cost the city sales tax revenue. While no such stores have opened in Sacramento since the ordinance took effect, at least three have set up shop just outside the city limits.

The Region Builders and Sacramento Metro Chamber of Commerce say the ordinance puts the city at a competitive disadvantage. The strongest opponents of repeal are labor unions that have long battled with nonunion Wal-Mart, accusing it of mistreating workers and causing blight.

If the ordinance is overturned, unions can still make those arguments. And if the requirement is ended, big-box stores – bigger than 40,000 square feet in most of the city and 125,000 square feet in the central business district – would still have to win a conditional use permit. That process would properly focus on land use issues – for instance, whether a site would work with traffic and be compatible with the neighborhood. There are few places in Sacramento where superstores make sense, or where the zoning code will allow them.

There's another safeguard if a proposal is particularly problematic. The planning commission or City Council could still require the economic impact analysis on a case-by-case basis.

Those arguments convinced planning commission members, including those sympathetic to labor, that repeal is in order. Their 11-1 vote last Thursday should send a strong message to the council to follow along. The council's Law and Legislation Committee is scheduled to take up the issue on June 18; it would go to the full council in July.

The immediate impact of repeal is likely to be more symbolic than practical. Wal-Mart says it has no plans for another Sacramento store; Delta Shores, the 800-acre project on the city's southern edge that is seeking to sign up anchor tenants, isn't likely to be built until the market improves.

Yet getting rid of an unnecessary and burdensome ordinance would send a message that Sacramento is friendlier to business. Already, City Hall is making it easier to obtain business permits and streamlining the city's antiquated zoning code. While we always have to guard against going too far, that is a good trend.

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