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Food Fight

Cotati grocer mobilizes opposition to proposed huge new Lucky store

By Bruce Robinson

While large, modern box stores that formerly housed Kmart and Price Club stores stand vacant a few miles north in Rohnert Park, a mammoth new grocery outlet is being proposed near the freeway in Cotati--a 62,000-square-foot Lucky Food Center that, according to its leading detractor, threatens to change the face of this low-key central Sonoma County community.

"I think it is the antithesis of what Cotati is all about," worries grocery owner Steve Maass. "Cotati has resisted these types of businesses in the past, has tried to distinguish itself by its quality of life rather than having those big businesses come in and take over things."

As the co-owner of Oliver's Market, the only major grocery store now operating in Cotati, Maass has a clear economic stake in the issue. The new corporate competitor would be nearly twice as big as Oliver's. A store that size "needs to do $500,000 to $600,000 a week, just to break even. If they pull $100,000 from us, we're going to be out of business." Maass frets. "This would be the largest Lucky in Northern California, 18 percent larger than the one [on Lakeville Highway] in Petaluma, which is huge."

Plans submitted to the city call for a single, hangar-sized building at the back of the seven-acre lot, which is slightly southwest of the intersection of Highway 116 and Old Redwood Highway. Most of the remaining land will be paved over for 274 parking spaces and a stand-alone fast-food drive-thru, but the city does require that 20 percent of the area be landscaped.

The new Lucky superstore would include its own pharmacy (Sav-On Drugs is a Lucky subsidiary), video store, bank, bakery, and other departments competing directly with existing local businesses. "This is typically what we have been building nowadays," says Todd Skoro, the store's project manager.

A division of American Food Stores, the largest grocery retailer in the country, Lucky stores operate throughout Northern and Southern California, including Sebastopol, Sonoma, and three locations in Santa Rosa. The Lakeville Highway store in Petaluma (one of two Luckys in that community), at approximately 52,000 square feet, is the largest of the existing local Luckys.

The proposed new store is slated for an area long designated for general commercial development. "For a long time, we thought there was going to be an Albertson's going in there," says Cotati Planning Director Dennis Dorch. The Lucky plans have been given a preliminary environmental review, which identified few major concerns. One Little League baseball field will be lost, and traffic on Old Redwood Highway will be markedly increased, but "there are no unknown impacts that we are aware of," Dorch says.

To accommodate the increased traffic, a series of new stoplights is proposed to be installed, along with a center median strip in Old Redwood Highway. With these mitigation measures in place, Dorch says, the project could be approved without any further environmental studies. Economic analyses are not required as part of an environmental review, but projects that generate extensive controversy in the community are sometimes required to perform a full EIR because of the intense public concern. The first hearing on the proposed Lucky store is scheduled for May 6 before the Cotati Planning Commission.

Maass, however, is getting some additional input of his own. He has commissioned a review of the city's traffic impact analysis, including the proposed mitigation measures, as well as an economic study to assess the impact the new Lucky store would have on surrounding businesses. And he has begun circulating petitions of opposition among his customers and other townsfolk. "Within a week, we had 3,000 signatures. Overwhelmingly, the people in town don't want it," Maass reports.

"I really wouldn't object so much to Lucky coming in," he continues, "but one of this size, such a superstore, it's pretty devastating to any of the competing businesses and would change the complexion of the town. It really dictates to the community what things are going to be like, let alone what it's going to do to traffic."

He also argues that the city may be overestimating the fiscal benefits it would get by approving the project. "The politicians want to get the tax revenue, but if we go out of business, they'll lose our revenue," Maass contends.

According to Cotati Finance Director John Ellis, the sales tax income from a new grocery store is generally estimated at $30,000 per year, "although this [proposal] is probably above industry standards because it's larger." Food items are not subject to sales tax, but other goods are. Increased property tax revenues from the development would probably benefit local schools more than city government, Ellis adds.

But then there are those empty stores just up the road. "That's a regional concern and I do share that concern," says Dorch. "Unless you have population gains, retail in itself is a closed system" that gets divided up differently as new businesses open and close. That said, he adds, "I believe there will be a market for this particular Lucky store, and obviously they do, too, or they wouldn't be investing this much in it."

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From the April 18-24, 1996 issue of the Sonoma Independent

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