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Are big box stores environmental hazards?

More than a few social and economic trends have drifted eastward from California (think Proposition 13, nouvelle cuisine, medical marijuana) so it is worth noticing a new idea from the nation’s most populous state aimed at curbing development of big box stores, such as Walmart, in local communities. Under California law, cities and towns can consider the competitive economic effects of these megastores — sometimes called “category killers,” for their ability to wipe out smaller rivals — and require a greater level of scrutiny in the state’s environmental impact review.

The concept is that “urban decay” — the blight that can follow shuttered local business districts unable to compete with the megastores — is an environmental impact when it affects the health, safety, and welfare of the residents. This can include any number of cascading ills, from deteriorating buildings and overgrown lots to crime. In the past several years a proposed Home Depot in Eureka, Calif., Walmart superstores in Bakersfield and Redlands, and a large shopping center on the interstate in Woodland, Calif., all were required to prepare detailed urban decay studies to pass regulatory muster with the state. In the Woodland case, an appellate court overturned the city’s approval of the highway mall late last year because the environmental review didn’t provide adequate mitigation measures for the struggling downtown.


The idea is novel, and the specifics of determining when an urban decay disclosure is triggered, and what constitutes compliance with the law, are still rather vague. Reuben Duarte, a land-use planner at a large real estate law firm in Los Angeles, has worked extensively with the regulations. He bristles at their ambiguity, wondering, for example, why a nail salon opening in a neighborhood with many other nail salons wouldn’t have to provide an urban decay study. Or why a Walmart might need to justify itself against urban decay claims when a Trader Joe’s might not. Allowing environmental reviews to drift into the economic realm is worrisome, he says, and weakens the state’s environmental laws overall. “It’s not to say that you shouldn’t be concerned with the local economy, but abusing tools meant for protecting the environment as tools of economic protectionism is disingenuous,” he wrote in an e-mail.

The California law could certainly be less muddy in establishing thresholds for urban decay review. Still, the problem of hollowed-out downtowns in older urban communities is real. It’s sobering to consider how things might have been different in, say, Atlantic City, if an urban decay study had been required before casinos were allowed to proliferate there.


Beyond big box battles, urban decay studies signal a larger trend toward viewing environmental impacts more broadly, to encompass social and economic values. The Rockefeller Foundation’s recent “100 Resilient Cities” initiative, which gives substantial grants to cities around the world, explicitly “supports the incorporation of a view of resilience that includes not just the shocks — earthquakes, fires, floods, etc. — but also the stresses that weaken the fabric of a city on a daily basis.” These can include high unemployment, chronic housing shortages, or endemic violence. Indeed, Boston recently was chosen among the 100 resilient cities not just to plan for the effects of sea-level rise, but to mitigate racial tension, economic inequality, and (given the Marathon bombings) terrorist threats. Another example is Pope Francis, whose clarion call for action on climate change is linked directly to his concern for the world’s poor.


This wider lens is a plus. It allows us to see the interconnectedness of all things, and to understand that the environment, like our communities, has the potential to decay – or to heal.

Renée Loth's column appears regularly in the Globe.