The Billings Heights neighborhood is still reeling from the news that a proposed 183,645 s.f. Wal-Mart supercenter would add 5,118 new cars a day to Main St, which now carries 25,000 vehicles each day. The traffic could would top 6,000 new cars on a Saturday. A report by a traffic engineer says the Wal-Mart will increase congestion on Main St. by one-fifth. Main Street in Billings Heights is already one of the busiest streets in the entire state of Montana. “You can study it until hell freezes over and you still only have one road,” Yellowstone County Supervisor Jim Reno told The Billings Gazette. “Would we let any city in Montana have only one road? No way.” Reno said that the bottleneck will have to get worse to create any solutions. “How do you bring focus to something until you have a toothache?” Reno asked. A Wal-Mart supercenter will be a major toothache for Billings Heights. Their proposal will consume 23 acres of land in town, and place its loading docks across the street from residential homes on Bench Boulevard. As an added bonus, the supercenter would be located just 500 feet from an elementary school. Wal-Mart is still reportedly negotiating with landowners, and residents will have their first shot to comment on the project on October 27th — but it could also be their last shot. According to the newspaper, the “public comment period will occur relatively quickly”, because the City/County Planning Department will meet a couple of weeks later, and the Billings City Council could take up the plan as early as mid-December. City officials have urged Wal-Mart to ask for a rezoning to “planned development” so the city can exert more control over the details of the project. One city official said that “if it comes in as a straight zoning request change to highway or community commercial, this site plan would be meaningless because they could do what they want.” Meanwhile, County Supervisor Reno seems pleased that Billings has to deal with all these growth problems, and he is promoting the construction of a new bridge over the Yellowstone River, linking the town of Lockwood to Billings Heights. “It’s a good problem to have,” Reno explained, “as opposed to a community that’s drying up.”
Hang in there, Jim Reno. You may have the chance to see what it’s like when a central business district dries up. If you think a toothache is bad, wait until you experience the economic headached that a Wal-Mart store can produce. Any time that a local zoning official tell you that a developer “can do what they want”, they either haven’t read their zoning ordinance, or they’ve been spending too much time in the company of developer’s lawyers. Even if land is zoned commercial “as of right”, it does not mean that anything can be built there, regardless of its impact on the general welfare of the community. And if a zoning administrator feels that way, there are many ways to update the ordinance to direct a town’s future growth. Big retailers are powerful — but so are local zoning laws.