It’s Wal-Mart, not Costco: North Auburn development battleground sold to retailing giant

By: Gus Thomson, Journal Staff Writer
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It’s a Wal-Mart, after all. In an end-game that an opponent of a big-box store on North Auburn’s 18.5-acre site said Monday was disappointing but not unexpected, Bohemia Properties has sold the much-fought-over property to Wal-Mart. While the project still faces a potential court battle, the $10 million purchase by the Benton, Ark.-based retailing giant signals an end to debate over whether a Costco or a Wal-Mart – or some other big-box retailer – would land the prime piece of real estate near Luther Road and Highway 49. Steve Cavolt, Bohemia spokesman, said that it came down to Wal-Mart meeting Bohemia managing partner Jim Conkey’s terms and conditions for a sale. “But it was between Costco and Wal-Mart,” Cavolt said. “Both were right there.” The transaction was recorded Jan. 29 with the Placer County Clerk-Recorder-Registrar’s Office but only acknowledged Monday. Cavolt said the sale wasn’t made public partly because of a potential lawsuit by the Alliance for the Protection of the Auburn Community Environment (APACE) group and because of business reasons. Victoria Connolly, a nearby resident to the Bohemia site and one of the APACE leaders, said the fight is continuing, with the group intending to appeal the project in court. “APACE is disappointed to hear this news however, it supports what we have been saying all along, that this was going to be a Wal-Mart supercenter,” Connolly said. “It reveals that Mr. Conkey has spent years trying to deceive the community about this project by saying that it was going to be something else, such as Costco. It is still our intent to fight this project and the significant impact it would have on the Auburn community. Cavolt said Conkey has been insistent that the agreement include language indicating Wal-Mart would try to hire local contractors on the construction project. The estimated construction cost is about $30 million. During the Bohemia project approval process before the Placer County Planning Commission and Board of Supervisors, Conkey received support from the Placer County Contractors Association, hard-hit by the construction downturn. Opponents such as activist Dale Smith have been critical of the Wal-Mart project on several fronts, including its use of out-of-area contractors in other communities and the congestion and safety problems they said a big-box store would create on Highway 49 and other roads. Cavolt said an agreement that could mean local jobs for contractors was a big factor in Conkey’s decision-making process. “Basically what it boiled down to was that they would try to get local contractors jobs on the project,” Cavolt said. “Jim Conkey was definitely in favor promoting local subs. The Wal-Mart is going to create 350 jobs for the Auburn area and hundreds of jobs for contractors and he was definitely trying to promote that.” A Wal-Mart spokesman couldn’t be reached for comment but with a court case still in front of the project, timing on a construction start and opening date would likely be difficult to determine at this time. During the lengthy approval process, no representatives from either Costco or Wal-Mart came forward to talk about a project Cavolt said was intentionally not going to identify a potential site owner. Cavolt said that past experience forced him to not identify either store because if an agreement fell through, he would have to start the process over again. Instead, Cavolt secured a use permit and environmental documentation from the county for a generic, 155,000 square-foot building and gas station. “Yes, it’s a Wal-Mart,” Cavolt said Tuesday, confirming sale information the county now has on file. “It was a personal business decision on Jim Conkey’s part. They met his terms so they the deal on his property.” TIMELINE 1941-45 Project site developed during World War II as the Cal-Ida Lumber Mill, producing crates for fruits and vegetables 1969 Cal-Ida sold to the DeGeorgio Corp. in 1969 1978 Mill bought by Bohemia Lumber Co. in 1978 1983 Lumber mill operations shut down 1984 All structures had been demolished on property 1989 Environmental documents approved for home-improvement center, retail-office buildings and a 150-unit apartment complex on a site that included what is now the 10-acre Plaza shopping center. Option to build not exercised and expired in 1991. 1992 Wal-Mart store proposed on 18-acre Bohemia site. Project approved by Planning Commission but appeal by neighbors upheld by Board of Supervisors and project denied. 1994 Auburn-Bowman Community Plan changes site’s designation from industrial to commercial 1995 Revised Wal-Mart plan submitted that eliminated auto center and Canal Street as secondary access. Board and Planning Commission OK’d project but after a lawsuit, plans withdrawn. 2007 Planning Commission considers plan to rezone land for 114-home subdivision. But application withdrawn after 2007 housing market crash 2008 New plan submitted for 155,000 square-foot retail building with fueling station May 2010 Bohemia developer Jim Conkey proposes to change project description to allow emergency-pedestrian access only at Canal Street June 2010 Wal-Mart-Costco-type store on Bohemia site supported on 4-1 vote by North Auburn Municipal Advisory Council July 2010 With Planning Department support, the Placer County Planning Commission votes 6-1 to approve clearances to build the planned 155,000-square-foot store July 2010 Alliance for the Protection of the Auburn Community Environment files an appeal to the Board of Supervisors on the Planning Commission decision Sept. 2010 Placer County supervisors give their support to the Bohemia development, clearing the way for a court battle over a possible Costco or Wal-Mart in North Auburn December 29, 2010 Bohemia Properties sells the 18-acre site to Wal-Mart March 28, 2011 Bohemia Properties confirms North Auburn site has been sold to Wal-Mart Source: Placer County Planning Department, Journal files