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Small town Sebastopol - frontline battle against big-time developer

Small town Sebastopol residents in Northern California have been waging a fierce David vs. Goliath struggle against the powerful Chase Bank, CVS Pharmacy, and Armstrong Development for over two years. The implications of this struggle extend beyond this one town, as big business continues to seek to expand its wealth.

Chase, the U.S.’s largest bank, and CVS, its 18th largest mega-corporation, propose to anchor the downtown commons with what opponents describe as “a suburban strip mall.” Armstrong has been representing the real estate needs of Chase/CVS in Sebastopol, as well as elsewhere around the country, and warrants a close study.

“Efforts to stop this project with the denial of the design need to stop tonight,” said Michelle Moore, an Armstrong attorney at a July 17 City Council meeting. Sebastopol’s Design Review Board (DRB) had already rejected the proposal twice, most recently by a 4-1 vote.

Armstrong’s attorney threatened and bullied nearly 200 residents of the town of 7,300 to shut up and take orders from Armstrong/Chase/CVS. She was apparently trying to subvert the democratic process and replace it by the power of big business.

Residents objected to someone coming from outside to tell them how to run their agrarian town, which exemplifies what would be likely if the proposal is approved. The Planning Commission and City Council had also previously rejected the proposal for not conforming to the town’s General Plan, as well as design and planning regulations.

The reason the proposal is still on the table is the threat by the deep pockets of Chase and CVS to sue the town and its people. Sebastopudlians talk about fighting for “the heart and soul” of their town and “not selling it to the highest outside bidder.” They discuss tactics such as boycotts and civil disobedience to block Chase/CVS from dominating their charming downtown and ushering in other mega-corporations.

Opponents implore the Council to wait until a better offer, which conforms to the town’s regulations, comes along. Another nearby large development, the Barlow Project, has received substantial local support because it will provide spaces for many local businesses. The money would thus circulate locally rather than leave the area. The downtown already has enough credit unions and local banks, as well as a pharmacy.

Though the July 17 meeting that started at 6 p.m. was advertised as a “public hearing,” the developers talked for two hours. It was 10 p.m. by the time the patient public was allowed to speak; most people had gone home.

The hearing convened again on July 19, where 43 people spoke against the development and 17 for it. Those supporting the development were mainly older friends of the family seeking to sell its two and a half acre abandoned car dealership. The opponents included people from their early 20s into their 70s. Among them were half a dozen activists from Occupy Sebastopol, which still maintains a tent in the town square.

Activists complained that the development is car-centric, mainly a large parking lot with only two isolated stores, rather than pedestrian and bike friendly. They noted that the drive-through component would create greater pollution in the downtown commons and increase greenhouse gas emissions, thus worsening chaotic climate change. A study reported that traffic would be increased by at least 2000 trips a day in the county’s most clogged intersection. This would not be good for emergency vehicles, pedestrians, or bikers.

The next and perhaps final meeting on the proposal will be August 7, when the Council plans to make a decision. After that it is expected that whichever side does not prevail may sue.

The DRB was willing to work with Armstrong. However, it has basically ignored the feedback that it gets from the majority of citizens and town officials, only making a few cosmetic changes. Armstrong appears to be trying to strong-arm its case, preferring a litigious route to get what it wants.

“In the next five years, we anticipate completing retail development values at over half a billion dollars,” Armstrong’s California Region website brags. “From one store in a small town, we now develop CVS
pharmacies in nine states. We’ve constructed over 400 locations with more than 150 sites in the development pipeline. A similar development program exists with JP Morgan Chase Bank, with many sites in development across our region.” Chase and CVS are frequent partners around the U.S., as well as in paying millions of dollars in fines for illegal business practices.

“California is being targeted for a saturation of CVS stores,” writes Yvette Williams of Sebastopol’s Planning Commission, which has rejected the development.

Many federal regulators currently are investigating Chase. Its CEO Jamie Dimon originally announced losses of around $2 billion dollars in June and then admitted in July that they were $6 billion or more. Chase is one of the big five banks responsible for the recent fall of the American economy. CVS has also paid millions of dollars in fines for failing to clean-up toxic wastes and other deadly crimes.

Armstrong adds, “We have long standing valued relationships with some of the national’s leading retailers that include Wal-Mart, Lowe’s Home Improvement Center and Target.” So if a city wants to be dominated by long-term relationships with such mega-corporations, Armstrong would be a good developer to hire.

But most Sebastopudlians have settled in a small town with a charming downtown commons because they prefer its agrarian flavor. A larger nearby city, Rohnert Park, has selected a corporate model, which has no town center where people can gather.

Sebastopol is the center of what is called the West County, with some 50,000 residents, of the coastal Sonoma County. It used to be known more by its natural description, the “Redwood Empire,” which many locals still call it. However, the commercial designation is now “Wine Country,” since it has the most lucrative wine industry in the U.S.

Armstrong’s website boasts that it can “quickly locate and open multiple sites.” Yet they have had to spend more than two years already and still do not have an approval in tiny Sebastopol, known as a “green” community with commitments to sustainability.

This controversy has already become a major issue in the Nov. 6 election, where two seats on the City Council are available. Of the four viable candidates, two have come out against the Chase/CVS development—businessmen Robert Jacob and John Eder. They support local business, rather than big business, which drains money out of the county.

Council member Kathleen Shaffer seeks to retain her seat. “Her support for the project from the outset has limited her ability to serve our city,” writes Jonathan Greenberg on the local waccobb.net website. He suggests that Shaffer should not vote on this issue.

Two activists from the nearby Occupy Petaluma testified at the July 19 meeting. They indicated problems with CVS in their city and are also mounting a campaign against Chase. “If Chase goes ahead with this development in Sebastopol,” commented Amy Hanks of Occupy Petaluma, “we could target their stores around the county and develop boycotts to hurt their businesses. If we are displeased by their behavior, we can make them feel that displeasure where it hurts -- in their cash register.”

Shepherd Bliss teaches college, has operated a farm for the last 20 years, and can be reached at 3sb@comcast.net.

Editorial Notes: I've heard of similar struggles in the US and the UK. Few of them have a Shepherd Bliss to document them. Mainstream news usually ignores or downplays these issues. Shepherd is a long-time contributor to Energy Bulletin. -BA

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