On July 20, 1999 (see newsflash below) we reported that residents of Lake Geneva (pop 6000) would be voting in a non-binding referendum on a proposed 124,000 s.f. Home Depot at one of the main entranceways into the city. The measure was put on the ballot by municipal officials. The city had been working on an ordinance that would require stores in excess of 50,000 s.f. to get a conditional use permit, but Home Depot pursued its own timetable. The vote was held on September 14th. Voters were asked: “Shall the Common Council of the City of Lake Geneva approve the proposed Home Depot development to be located at the Highway 50 and 12 interchange?” A total of 1412 people voted on this question, with 754 saying Yes (53%) and 658 (47%) saying no. In other words, Home Depot won by only a 49 vote difference. The remarkable thing is that local residents say there was no organized opposition to Home Depot. Yet the company helped create a “Friends of Lake Geneva” campaign group, spent money to identify their voters, and had poll-watchers on election day to monitor if their supporters turned out to vote. When the “Friends” group files its campaign finance report, locals expect the report to show that the one — and perhaps only — “Friend” with money in the group was Citizen Home Depot, which has been known to spend enormous sums on these voter campaigns. The fact is, the timing for the non-binding vote is absurd. As of today, the land in question has not been rezoned, and Home Depot has presented no plans to either the Plan Commission or the City Council. This means voters have heard nothing yet about the details of the Home Depot plans. Ironically, voters rejected two other “pro-growth” referendum questions on the ballot that dealt with annexation of land for either residential or commerical purposes. Voters rejected those questions by roughly the same margin they approved Home Depot, suggesting that voters were influenced by a specific pro Home Depot organized campaign. As the plan now moves to the Plan Commission, and then the Council, it should be noted that the vote was non-binding, and preceded any real information about the details of what Home Depot wants to do out on the interchange.
In my hometown of Greenfield, MA in 1993, voters in April approved a non-binding referendum on Wal-Mart. The non-binding vote was taken before an economic impact report was presented on the project, and before the Town Council debated the issue. Once the Council voted for Wal-Mart in August, the issue was taken by voters to a binding ballot referendum, and in October the voters rejected a rezoning for Wal-Mart. In other words, in a matter of six months, the voters reversed their non-binding vote to reject Wal-Mart — once the details of the project itself began to filter out. In Lake Geneva, local officials did a disservice to the community by scheduling a vote BEFORE any information gleaned from the hearing process itself came out. People will also be surprised once they see how much the “Friends” spent to win 754 votes.