Bruce Maiman

Costco spat in Placer is all about money

Edith Wenzel calls out bingo numbers at the Auburn Multipurpose Senior Center last year. The center would be displaced by a proposed Costco on the DeWitt property just outside Auburn.
Edith Wenzel calls out bingo numbers at the Auburn Multipurpose Senior Center last year. The center would be displaced by a proposed Costco on the DeWitt property just outside Auburn.

Let’s unravel this long-simmering food fight over Costco between Placer County and the city of Auburn. The battle is over a proposal to bring Costco to unincorporated county land called DeWitt, just outside Auburn’s city limits.

The city raises familiar arguments about big-box stores hurting local businesses and small-town life, as well as traffic congestion and environmental concerns. The city has sued the county, claiming the county is violating the California Environmental Quality Act.

“We believe they’ve given a de facto approval of a project without the benefit of the full CEQA process,” Auburn Mayor Keith Nesbitt told me. “They’ve entered into a lease agreement, scheduled the destruction of buildings and they’ve displaced some nonprofits. To us, that’s tantamount to approving a project.”

The county insists that a CEQA process will ensue, but that its actions so far don’t require it.

Time out.

The agreement between Costco and the county isn’t permanent; it’s conditional. A conditional use permit makes clear that an agreement won’t go forward unless the project gets through the CEQA process. Nothing is binding until then. If the project isn’t greenlit, the two parties go their separate ways, neither of them obligated to the other.

The county has been replacing structures at DeWitt for 20 years. Current tenants were going to be displaced whether Costco was approved or not. “They’ve been on essentially month-to-month leases in anticipation of some form of redevelopment occurring on that property,” said Placer County Executive Officer David Boesch. “It’s not a matter of whether, but when.”

Many old buildings on the DeWitt parcel – Boesch describes them as “functionally obsolete” – have been torn down and replaced with new ones, mostly for county government services, but it’s not as if the county hasn’t any history of gentrification or revitalization.

If Auburn is that concerned about anyone being displaced, perhaps it should provide those facilities within city limits, or work with the county to build new facilities, or get local residents involved. In fact, Costco has offered to kick in $530,000 to help relocate one of the property’s current nonprofit occupants – the Auburn Multipurpose Senior Center.

As for concerns about traffic congestion and air quality, a local Costco would reduce pollution because residents would no longer drive down Highway 49 to Interstate 80 to the Costco in Roseville, where more than 30 percent of the customers are from Auburn. Doesn’t using less gas mean less adverse impact on the environment?

City officials believe that the county sees DeWitt as a cash cow without regard to any impact on Auburn and its residents, and that a Costco will result in a bunch of empty storefronts.

Yet Auburn tried to land a Costco on city property several years ago. “The only piece of property large enough was unavailable because the property owner didn’t want to sell,” former Placer County Supervisor Harriet White said.

What, are empty storefronts only a concern when a box store is on another municipality’s property?

That’s what this is really about – money. A municipality developing its property for commercial purposes is as old as the hills, and Auburn is upset because it won’t get any tax revenue if Costco ends up on county-owned land.

Whether this is a case of a greedy county or a sour grapes city, you’d think the governing bodies would have talked to each other first and perhaps worked out a revenue-sharing agreement. Except Nesbitt claims multiple attempts by city officials to meet with county officials failed and the lawsuit “was the only way we could get the county to the table.”

Not surprisingly, the county has it the other way. “To the best of my knowledge, none of the City Council members or staff showed up to any of the public meetings that we held where any of this discussion was occurring,” county Supervisor Jennifer Montgomery said.

And now that a lawsuit has been filed, the two parties can’t talk to each other except through mediation.

“Unfortunately,” Montgomery said, “that means it’s now going to be conversations between attorneys.”

Bruce Maiman is a former radio host who lives in Rocklin. Contact him at Follow him on Twitter @Maimzini.