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North Auburn Wal-Mart court fight back with a vengeance

By: Gus Thomson, Journal Staff Writer
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The revelation this week that Wal-Mart has bought a controversial site for a store in North Auburn is galvanizing opposition into action. The retailing giant bought the 18.5-acre Bohemia property from Roseville developer Jim Conkey last December but, citing a looming court battle, Bohemia Properties – and Wal-Mart – kept the sale quiet. The $10 million deal, first reported in the Auburn Journal Tuesday, has sparked resumption of a stalled civil-court action by the 155,000-square-foot development’s major foe. Saying the group “has no choice,” the Alliance for the Protection of the Auburn Community Environment (APACE) pledged Thursday to move forward with a lawsuit. That means lodging an appeal of Superior Court Judge Charles Wachob’s March 1 decision denying APACE from proceeding with its suit after it had been accidentally filed three days late. APACE had asked Wachob for relief on the late filing but the judge said he had no authority to grant it “whether (it) was filed a day late or a year late.” Before the sale, Conkey had consistently contended through a three-year approval process with Placer County that no particular business was earmarked for the property but Costco or Wal-Mart-type businesses were potential tenants. Bohemia spokesman Steve Cavolt said Tuesday that the threat of an APACE lawsuit led Costco to bow out and leave Wal-Mart as the lone bidder. The sale was completed Dec. 29. Claiming that the was duped by the developer, APACE announced Thursday that it would file its appeal by the end of April – and in time to meet the 60-day court-imposed deadline. Cavolt couldn’t be reached for comment Thursday and Wal-Mart has not responded to requests for an interview. If the appeal is not denied, APACE could move ahead on a lawsuit that claims violations of state environmental-quality laws on several fronts, including impacts on air quality, traffic and urban decay. Bohemia Properties and Placer County are named in the lawsuit. The Board of Supervisors approved the project in late September. APACE had been mulling the appeal since Wachob’s decision came down but had not publicly committed to moving forward until Thursday’s announcement. “APACE has no choice but to continue to fight,” said Victoria Connolly, a member of the group. APACE describes itself as a coalition of local residents and business owners, with a 650-member Facebook page. “The developer Jim Conkey seems to have pulled a bait-and-switch on Auburn residents by stating he was looking to lease to tenants, such as Costco or Lowe’s, then he turned around and sold the property to Wal-Mart,” Connolly said. “It’s unfortunate that the developer chose not to work with the public but instead put into play a scenario for not just a supercenter, but one that would certainly have the kind of adverse effects that APACE and other members of the public were fighting against. It seems clear he had a plan all along.” Connolly reiterated a call for Cavolt and Conkey to produce proof backing claims that Costco was legitimately in contention for locating a store on the site. “Otherwise, with no other foundation beside words, his statement frankly seems nothing more than an attempt to turn the public against our group’s efforts,” Connolly said. At least one long-time business in Auburn is expressing strong concerns about its future as Wal-Mart positions itself for a move into the local market. “Those big stores just end up killing a town,” said Eisley Nursery co-owner Earlene Eisley. “They’ll build and people will shop there and hopefully we’ll survive. We’ve been here 80 years and want to make it to 100.” Eisley said that Wal-Mart buying power can result in the corporation’s store selling product for less than a nursery can buy it wholesale. “The structure is so much in their favor that it hurts businesses,” she said. Another business owner – Jerry Kopp, owner of Uptown Signs – said he sees benefits for the community. “This is America – they have a right to build there,” Kopp said. “They’ll provide jobs and construction. And the jobs aren’t as bad as people say.” Payscale.com reports that hourly Wal-Mart wage rates around the country range from $8.24 to $10.46 for retail sales associates and $7.78 to $9.15 for cashiers. California’s minimum wage rate is $8 an hour.