Now the real fight begins…

by Mike Geniella, December 15, 2009

Coming soon to a lot near you?

Coming soon to a lot near you?

Include me among the Mendocino County folks who thought that a decisive election outcome last month had put on hold, at least for awhile anyway, the battle over big box retail development in the Ukiah Valley.

But this is Mendocino County, where the rules are made up as we go. It seems that even while we were back-slapping each other over the results of the Measure A campaign, Costco representatives and local government leaders were already setting the stage for possibly the mother of all development battles.

The ballots were barely counted, we learn, when Costco and city and county administrators started talking again about potential store sites in the valley, including a portion of old industrial land at the heart of the Measure A ballot battle.

So forget the idea that the big box battle has been won. Instead ponder reports that local planners say if Costco indeed buys land at the former Masonite mill site for its big box store, it may only need to comply with a a simple permit process to begin construction. Among the questions: What is there to prevent other retailers from doing the same?

What ‘s clear now is the naked reality of pressures surrounding big box development, fostered by city and county leaders’ chronic inability to forge a common vision for the Ukiah Valley.

We’re heading for an epic battle over which government entity brings home the bacon, potentially millions of dollars in new sales tax revenue. Who wins will shape future development in the valley for decades to come.

Costco, and possibly other big box retailers, at this point are in the driver’s seat.

The Ohio-based development group that lost its $1 million campaign to circumvent county planning requirements for the proposed Masonite mall development may decide to liquidate their land holdings at bargain-basement prices. Since the site is outside city limits, county coffers could benefit hugely from a Costco deal.

But don’t count the city of Ukiah out. The city is so eager to lure Costco to the Redwood Business Park at the  south end of town that its gone into the development business.  The city has purchased several parcels of privately owned land, and hopes to package them in a way that might make Costco or other developers decide to locate there.

Whatever Costco’s eventual choice, it’s certain to fuel a new community controversy. We can only hope that this time, however, the real issues will be debated.

It’s fine to talk about the valley’s small-town atmosphere, a quaint downtown and other quality-of-life attributes.

But frankly big bucks are at stake, and the public needs to stay focused on what lengths competing city and county interests will go to lure Costco and other big box retailers.

Just a few months ago Measure A critics were exhorting voters to “Save Our Local Economy.” City leaders gloomily warned that the proposed Masonite mall would destroy Ukiah’s historic downtown business core. How a Costco development at another location won’t do the same has yet to be answered.

Residents need to hold elected city and county leaders accountable. A  valley-wide planning document is still stalled after nearly 20 years of talking. There’s still no city-county agreement to share future sale tax revenue increases, a pact which could stop the practice of pitting one entity against another when it comes to development proposals.

Piece-meal planning, Mendocino County’s trade mark, has got to stop.

You can contact Mike Geniella at mgeniella@gmail.com.

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