When Grocery Outlet wanted to build a new store in Seaside, developers faced resistance from Protect Pacific Northwest.
The nonprofit claimed to represent people in the area and across the region, but city leaders never discovered who was behind the organization. The only person they interacted with directly was Karl Anuta, a Portland environmental attorney.
Now another group, Responsible Growth Astoria, has emerged to challenge a Grocery Outlet near Mill Pond.
Organizers claim they are local residents and merchants, but they have declined to provide any identifying information other than their attorney, Anuta.
“The membership of the group is something that they don’t want revealed for probably good reasons,” Anuta explained. Citing attorney-client privilege, he described the group only as “a coalition of a number of different folks.”
“The problem is that if you get into who is part of a group, people focus on the who not what is the group’s position,” he said. “What is the substance of their message? What are they saying and is that a good thing or a bad thing?”
Responsible Growth Astoria’s Facebook page, messaging and email address share striking similarities to two other groups that surfaced over the past few months to fight development projects.
Responsible Growth Palmdale opposes a commercial and residential project with a Sprouts Farmers Market near the Antelope Valley Mall in Southern California. Responsible Growth Lake Stevens is against a Costco in the suburb east of Everett, Washington.
One day after The Astorian reported on the similarities between the three groups last week, Responsible Growth Lake Stevens rebranded its Facebook page as Livable Lake Stevens.
Anuta also represents Livable Lake Stevens.
A man named Ken J., who said he manages the Facebook page for Responsible Growth Astoria, denied last week that the three groups are linked. The group did not respond to further request for comment.
Responsible Growth Astoria has argued that a Grocery Outlet off Marine Drive near the Mill Pond neighborhood and the new Astoria Co+op would have negative impacts on traffic, commute times, pollution and property values.
Main & Main Capital Group, a Texas-based development firm, hopes to build a 16,000-square-foot discount grocery store on a triangular lot between 21st Street and 23rd Street. A hearing on the project has been continued until September.
The same developers won approval earlier this year for an 18,000-square-foot Grocery Outlet in Seaside.
Anuta, on behalf of Protect Pacific Northwest, had threatened to contest the project before the Land Use Board of Appeals. He later withdrew his appeal.
Seaside Mayor Jay Barber tried to learn more about Protect Pacific Northwest during a hearing in front of the City Council in January.
Anuta would only say Protect Pacific Northwest included “people up and down the coast, both in Oregon and Washington that get involved in land use matters and are worried about sprawl or development that is going to create increased traffic or increased impacts,” according to minutes of the meeting.
Barber asked if some of the people lived in Seaside.
Anuta replied that there were some members in the area, but he did not identify anyone.
An interest in grocery store projects
On its website, Protect Pacific Northwest describes itself as an advocate “for the protection and preservation of our precious natural resources, waterways, open space, parks, forests and wildlife from urban sprawl and overdevelopment in the PNW.”
There is a button people can click to “join the cause” and an email address to send messages. While there are references to a research team, no names, no phone numbers, no board members and no employees are listed.
A nonprofit called Protect Pacific Northwest is registered with the state. The group’s authorized representative is Andrew Grundman, a Sacramento, California, attorney who has acted as a business consultant for mining operations and as legal counsel for an alternative energy company.
He has also served as the executive director of Protect CEQA, which describes itself as “a statewide coalition of environmentalists, labor members, and concerned residents committed to protecting the California Environmental Quality Act, open space preservation, and promoting smart growth development.”
Grundman said he was not aware of Protect Pacific Northwest, but said it was likely associated with Protect CEQA, which has taken a particular interest in creating obstacles for grocery store projects in California.
Anuta said he could not speak to any connection between Protect Pacific Northwest and Protect CEQA. There may be other components of the organization beyond what he was involved with when he represented Protect Pacific Northwest in Seaside, he said.
Last year, Protect CEQA filed an unsuccessful legal challenge to a new Raley’s in Truckee, California. Earlier, Protect CEQA and a group called Sustainable Truckee partnered on research critical of the potential impact of Raley’s, a Grocery Outlet and a third store on other grocers.
In 2017, Grundman, representing a group called Sustainable Mammoth Lakes, tried to block a Grocery Outlet in Mammoth Lakes, California.
Critics have suggested the shadowy campaigns in California and Oregon could be backed by competitors in the grocery industry.
Art Chapman, the chairman of JMA Ventures, the developer of the Raley’s project in Truckee, told The Astorian he believed Safeway may have been behind Protect CEQA, though he was never able to prove it.
Kurt Reinkens, of MWA Architecture and Engineering, was the principal architect for the Grocery Outlet project in Truckee and harbored similar suspicions.
“My perception is that they are a hidden hired gun,” he said. “We don’t know who they work for. I don’t think their interests are actually in protecting CEQA.”
Safeway did not respond to a request for comment. Anuta said Safeway is not his client for Responsible Growth Astoria or Livable Lake Stevens .
“I am not representing Safeway nor have I had any contact with Safeway,” he said. “They’re not a client of mine.”
‘Did he represent local citizens?’
“What I was looking for was: Did he represent local citizens?” Barber said of Anuta and Protect Pacific Northwest’s concerns about the Grocery Outlet in Seaside. “But what I heard was that maybe, yes, but mostly this is a statewide effort mainly dealing with traffic issues and that sort of thing.”
If an appeal to the state had gone forward, the mayor thinks the city would have probed deeper and asked more questions about who was behind the nonprofit.
“I think it’s important to know who they are representing and I’d rather talk to them than to their legal representation,” Barber said. “They may have some very valid concerns, but then when an attorney comes before you and kind of threatens, ‘We’re going to go to LUBA,’ or, ‘We’re going to appeal that,’ I’d like to know why.”