The email message that came into Sprawl-Busters this week was very clear:
“This letter is to let you know that we won!! Quartz Hill Cares—you did a couple of stories starting in October of 2006—WON!! We beat Walmart and the City of Lancaster!! I am so ecstatic! This is a good, good day and I wanted you to know. You were instrumental in helping me (us) get this grass roots thing started and you are not forgotten."
For residents in Quartz Hill, California, this was a sweet moment after nearly five and a half years of battle. Quartz Hill is a rural, unicorporated town in Los Angeles County, situated in the Mojave Desert between the cities of Lancaster and Palmdale,
On February 1, 2009, Sprawl-Busters reported that 30 parents and students had rallied near the Quartz Hill, California High School to demonstrate their opposition to plans to build a Walmart supercenter across the street from the school. The residents held signs and handed out fliers for two hours in the early morning. “It's an informational rally to get the information out to the public about what they can do to stop the rezoning of these areas,“ Loretta Berry told the Antelope Valley News. Berry is a member of the group Quartz Hill Cares, which was founded in December 2006 to oppose the proposed developments. “It's a grass-roots effort at its finest, just citizens from all walks of life coming together,“ Berry said. Developers have super-sized plans for the intersection: a Walmart Supercenter on the northwest corner of the intersection, plus a Super Target and a Home Depot on the southeast corner.
The land slated for the Walmart is zoned residential and must be rezoned as commercial before the shopping centers can be constructed. “If this were already zoned commercial, yeah, you know, we could fight it and we might have a voice, but the fact that they have to rezone it to commercial—we have a chance. We can stop the rezoning,“ Berry explained. She told the Valley News that the Walmart/Target/Home Depot plan was “just madness—the wonderful community of Quartz Hill will get all the crime, the trash, the pollution - all the garbage that goes with supercenters.“
On December 22, 2006, residents contacted Sprawl-Busters about their superstore battles. There are already two Walmart discount stores in Lancaster, California. The superstore in Palmdale is roughly 6 miles away. Quartz Hill residents, whose town borders Lancaster, wrote: “Our rural community in Southern California has just found out the Lancaster is planning on building super centers right on our boundary lines. For years Lancaster and Palmdale have been encroaching upon us and annexing as much of our rural land as possible. It has been left undeveloped for quite some time with the exception of many housing tracts. The hubs of Lancaster and Palmdale are 8-10 miles away from Quartz Hill, a community of 10,000 residents. The only thing currently bordering the planned site is Quartz Hill High School. This whole plan is ludicrous, will destroy Quartz Hill, and we need help.“
Within a 10 mile radius of the proposed site are a Costco, 2 Lowe's Home Improvement Centers, 2 Home Depots, a K-mart, 2 Target stores, and dozens of shopping centers. Downtown Quartz Hill is the home to over 70 small mom-and-pop businesses, including a florist, a hardware store, salons, garages/ tire centers, liquor stores, restaurants, etc. The residents of Quartz Hill found out about the City of Lancaster's plans to build 2 supercenters in December of 2006.
The desert land that they want to build on was zoned for urban residential, with one lot small office zoned. The opposition quickly formed a grassroots organization, Quartz Hill Cares, and began spreading the word and seeking help in putting a stop to these supercenters. In 2008, R. Rex Parris, the new mayor, immediately dismissed the entire Planning Commission (most of whom opposed the supercenters) and appointed his own commission—3 of which are and/or have ties to local developers. The plans to build went full steam ahead. The Draft Environmental impact Reports were released on January 9, 2009, giving the public until February 23rd to respond to them.
The city of Lancaster in 2009 approved the Walmart rezoning, but Quartz Hill Cares sued the city, arguing that the city had violated Planning and Zoning laws and the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA). On June 29, 2010, the Los Angeles County Superior Court determined that allegations made by Quartz Hill Cares against the City of Lancaster were unfounded. City officials issued a press release boasting “City of Lancaster Prevails In Westside Shopping Center Court Case.” The city boasted that “after reviewing all case-related evidence, the court ruled in favor of the City.” The city’s attorney said: “The court’s agreement with the City’s approval of the project enables the developers to move forward with this development. This court ruling demonstrates that the City was both accurate and thorough in meeting the procedural, technical, and substantive requirements of the Planning laws and the California Environmental Quality Act.”
But that was not the end of the story. On March 16th, 2012, the Second District State Court of Appeal issued a 32 page decision overturning the 2010 decision of the Superior Court of Los Angeles County, which had upheld the Environmental Impact Report (EIR) prepared for the shopping center, to be located at 60th Street West and Avenue L in the City of Lancaster.
Quartz Hill Cares argued in its appeal that the City failed to consider the alternative of a commercial development without the big box store. The Appellate Court agreed with Quartz Hill Cares that the Final Environmental Impact Review in this case was “insufficient as an information document because its findings that the Reduced Commercial Density Alternative was not economically viable lacks the required evidentiary support. Because its conclusion is unsupported by substantial evidence, therefore, the City prejudicially abused its discretion by failing to proceed in a manner required by the California Environmental Quality Act.”
The City argued that “the lack of a big box anchor would effectively preclude development of its commercial center, since the secondary commercial uses remaining in the proposed project are not likely to develop without the customer draw created by the anchor tenant.” But the court found that “the evidence of economic infeasibility was not specific an concrete as would justify the…conclusion to reject the alternative as ‘not economically viable.’” The court ruled that the ”the document lacks any comparative data and analysis between the project—with the big box retailer—on the one hand, and the scaled-down version…on the other hand. There is no evidence of profitability or feasibility of the Reduced Commercial Density Alternative from which to make any comparison to determine whether the alternative would be less profitable or infeasible. Nor is there any factual justification for the bare conclusion that ‘secondary commercial uses…are not likely to develop without the customer draw created by the anchor tenant.”
The court said that the City had “cited us nothing in the entire administrative record to indicate any substantiality for the finding that the Reduced Commercial Density Alternative would not be feasible.” The court ruled that the city was ‘obligated to include substantial evidence, somewhere in the record, supporting its subsequent conclusion that the alternative was not economically viable.”
Lancaster Mayor Rex Parris responded to the Court’s ruling: “Along with the developer and Walmart, we are of course disappointed that the Court of Appeal would reverse the decision reached by the Superior Court on the basis of one aspect of a comprehensive and voluminous EIR. However, in shopping center developments such as this, it is unfortunately not uncommon to have to work through multiple legal challenges. The City Council, along with Walmart, will now consider options to supplement the record in support of the EIR, which is compliant in all other aspects.”
WHAT YOU CAN DO
What you can do: This court decision is a major setback to the city, and a major victory for the citizen’s group. To learn more about Quart Hill Care, go to www.quartzhillcares.info or call Loretta Berry at 661-943-7650 or 661-816-5069.
Readers are encouraged to send an email to Lancaster Mayor Rex Parris at: email@example.com; firstname.lastname@example.org with the following message:
“Dear Mayor Parris,
I am sure that neither you, nor Walmart, ever imagined that the Court of Appeal would rule against you.
When the lower court ruled in your favor, the city’s lawyer said the city's review had been ‘accurate and thorough.’ It turns out the environmental report was neither.
Now you have a chance to seriously review a reduced scale project—deleting the big box—and making the project fit the site, not the site fit the project. Remember that this was urban residential land before you rushed to rezone it and change your General Plan.
You have the chance now to give people in your city and Quartz Hill what they want: a smaller, more compatible project that fits into the character of the community.
A group of citizens has beaten the world’s largest retailer. It’s time for you to show some leadership and represent their interests for once.”