If Wal-Mart thought building a supercenter in Pittsfield, Michigan was going to be a six month process — they ended up spending six years embroiled in controversy. On February 5, 2006, Sprawl-Busters reported that the Planning Commission in Pittsfield township, Michigan had voted 5-1 in favor of a 168,000 s.f. Wal-Mart superstore. Commission members said they had to vote for the plan because “it did not violate any state or local laws or regulations.” “I’ve done everything I could possibly do in my legal capacity as a planning commissioner,” one Commissioner pleaded. “I would hope that people would respect that we are following the law.” The controversial approval led to a recall effort in 2006, with voters in Pittsfield trying to remove three township supervisors for failing to take proper action to stop the Wal-Mart store. That recall effort did not succeed, but the anger and frustration over the project remains. The group Pittsfield Community First argued from the beginning that the Wal-Mart superstore would create a traffic hazard for the nearby Saline High School and Harvest Elementary School, and that the township had not done a public safety impact study. The citizen’s group asked Wal-Mart to withdraw its proposal, agree to do employee background checks for criminal sexual conduct, limit store hours, not sell firearms, secure inhalants and other products sometimes abused by youths, provide 24-hour parking lot security and agree not to expand the store in the future. “You still have a chance, Wal-Mart. This is your chance to turn things around and withdraw,” said Lisa Miller, one of the founding members of Pittsfield Community First. The local State Representative added her voice to those asking Wal-Mart to reassess its project. In addition to other concerns, the Choctaw Nation of Indians told the Planning Commission that a historic Potawatomi Indian site existed several hundred yards from the proposed Wal-Mart location, and that Native American artifacts or even remains might exist on the site. The Choctaws insisted that an archaeological survey be conducted, and warned that federal law might prevent building the store without at least consulting with local Native American tribes. A spokesman for Wal-Mart told the newspaper that his company would be willing to discuss safety concerns with neighbors. “We are willing to talk with them and work through those issues,” the spokesman said. But Miller from the citizens group said that Wal-Mart may have “won the battle, but they have lost the war.” Referring to their anti Wal-Mart community petition, she added, “They’ve got 6,500 people who don’t what them here. They’ve definitely divided the community.” This week, the Ann Arbor News reported that Wal-Mart is finally getting started with its project — six years after it first announced its intentions in Pittsfield. Bids to build the store should be awarded by mid-July. “We’re excited to get started,” a Wal-Mart spokesman told The News. To build their store, Wal-Mart had to agree to spend roughly $4 million on road improvements to Route 12, adding new turn lanes and stoplights. Before Wal-Mart even began to move forward with store bids, other developers started to build near the superstore. The Michigan-State Shopping Center is located across from the Wal-Mart site, with a discount auto store, a bank, and a coffee shop. The State Shopping Center developer told the Ann Arbor News that the Wal-Mart project was a major factor in selecting their site across the street. “Just because Wal-Mart draws a lot of traffic,” the developer explained. The head of the Saline, Michigan chamber of commerce told The News that Wal-Mart is just a piece of a larger plan to create a “swath of development” around the Route 94 roadway on the south side of Ann Arbor.
This project began in June of 2002. The founders of Pittsfield Community First have cost Wal-Mart hundreds of millions of dollars in lost sales. Pittsfield Township resident Kristin Judge, active in Pittsfield Community First, also founded Moms vs. Wal-Mart. In February of 2006, Moms Vs. Wal-Mart issued a press release that said, “Wal-Mart places kids and families at risk by pursuing a strategy of building next to schools and residential neighborhoods. As they continue to saturate the market with new stores, parents and neighborhoods are standing up to Wal-Mart, the new ‘school-yard bully.’ Moms vs. Wal-Mart has launched a national campaign asking Wal-Mart CEO, Lee Scott Jr., to adopt a more family-friendly corporate policy: Wal-Mart Stores, Inc, will not build any future stores next to schools.” At one point groups from 11 states made up the coalition of families that stretches from Oregon to Maine. “Towns and cities face an enormous challenge when Wal-Mart, the world’s largest corporation, proposes to develop next to neighborhoods and schools in their community,” the group said. “Zoning Laws and Master Plans are easily swept aside as towns worry about using precious taxpayer dollars to battle Wal-Mart in court. Who loses? Kids. ‘It is shameful for the largest retailer in the world to be picking on communities in this way,’ said campaign organizer, Kristin Judge. ‘We ask that Wal-Mart limit building of stores to commercial areas, a safe distance from kids.’ The ‘Moms vs. Wal-Mart’ coalition is appealing to Wal-Mart to, “Stop building next to schools and backyards!” Readers are urged to email Pittsfield Township Supervisor James R. Walter at [email protected] with the following message: “Dear Supervisor Walter, Pittsfield is not just a place sandwiched in between Ann Arbor and Saline. You have a chance to distinguish your community, not bury it in sprawl. The Trustees decision to allow a Wal-Mart supercenter at State Road and Route 12 has led to further sprawl near that intersection. This will result in no added value to Pittsfield economically, because what Wal-Mart sells is already being sold by other merchants. This six year battle has deeply divided your community, and no doubt will be an election issue this November. The Trustees should put a lid on further sprawl by introducing a size cap of 65,000 s.f. on any future retail store, and you should require developers to put up a demolition escrow account, to be accessed by the township if a retail store ceases being a retail establishment for 12 months or more. Zoning decisions don’t have to be a win/lose proposition. In this case, many residents in your township felt Wal-Mart won — at their expense. You have the choice of either leading growth, or following it. So far, it looks like developers are leading the township down the road to sprawl. You have a limited window of opportunity to get back in control of your township’s future.”