Walmart's request to expand its Hood River store received measured support from Hood River City Planning Department staff.

Three people from the public spoke in support and three in opposition at Tuesday's Planning Commission hearing.

Walmart wants to add 30,000 square feet to the east side of the existing 72,000-square-foot store, built in 1991. Walmart wants to add a new grocery section, along with doing extensive interior and exterior site improvements. The expansion would not mean additional parking.

Because the zoning had been changed from commercial to light industrial in 1997, and grocery stores are not an allowed use under the revised zoning, it is up to Walmart to prove it has what is known as a "vested right" to build for this purpose.

"It's a tricky application," said Planning Director Cindy Walbridge, who handled Walmart's application as staff planner in 1991. Walmart must establish vested rights in addition to passing the planning commission's site review.

On Nov. 22, the commission will hear concluding testimony from the applicant, and is scheduled to meet again on Nov. 29 to make a recommendation to city council. The proposal must be acted upon by Dec. 31.

Among other testimony, Project Manager Scott Franklin presented a petition in support of the application, signed by 1,100 shoppers, including 350 people identified as Hood River residents.

"I want to see Walmart in there," said Eugene Birch of Hood River, who said he and his wife want to avoid their monthly grocery trip to Troutdale Walmart.

Rick Hutchinson of Mosier, a Hood River native, said his wife works at Walmart and the company provides good wages and benefits, and the expansion would add more job opportunities.

"Walmart deserves this expansion," Hutchinson said.

Steve Curley, of Underwood, said he is concerned about congestion caused by the store expansion.

"What will be the impact on traffic with an expansion this big?" he asked. Curley said the Walmart pledge to put up $450,000 for a stoplight at Rand and Cascade "is a drop in the bucket for a multibillion-dollar company. Walmart needs to find a bigger spot to build. Expansion is not a positive move for the city of Hood River," he said.

Nick Kraemer, of Odell, said the proposal is specifically excluded under current zoning, and pointed out that Walmart's investments in the property "are not toward groceries.

"From a common sense perspective, it does not pass the test," Kraemer said.

Franklin and the company's attorney in the case, Gary Hathaway, argued that Walmart made it clear in its 1991 application that it intended to add 30,000 square feet to the facility, and that its location in the middle of the property makes it clear that it wanted to expand all along.

"If Walmart had not intended to expand, it would have positioned the store farther to the east," Franklin said.

Walmart would need to add utility lines to serve the expanded space, but otherwise the water and sewer lines are sufficient to handle the expansion, Walmart officials noted and city officials confirmed.

City Attorney Dan Krause noted that the 1991 site plan does mention expansion by 30,000 feet in addition to a 5,000-square-foot "pad" that is not part of the new request.

According to Krause, "the original use was allowed, development was embarked upon, development proceeded and the question is, was it far enough that the applicant has acquired a vested right to complete it?"

Hathaway said, "We are entitled to expand; we have always felt we have the right to do so."

Architect Scott Franklin described an enhanced interior that will feature additional windows; the main entrance moved south to the center of the building, awnings, multiple colors, and "curvilinear roof lines" to reduce the existing box-like feel.

"Our flavors have changed since 1991," Franklin said.

Hathaway commented that Walmart still owns property on Country Club Road where it had tried in 2005-06 to get permission build a superstore, a proposal supported by the county planning commission but turned down by a vote of the board of commissioners.

"People told us then, 'expand your existing store,' and that is what we are doing here, following that advice. We want to expand the store," Hathaway said.

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