Wal-Mart opponents in a small Canadian city have outlasted the world’s largest retailer, and scored a major victory against an unwanted superstore sprawl. But the war is not officially over.
On January 21, 2009, Sprawl-Busters reported that a bitter fight over a proposed Wal-Mart supercenter was turning into an epic battle for the city of Stratford, Ontario. The battle came down to eastside versus westside.
Wal-Mart Canada, after six years of resistance and outright rejection, was still trying to push its way into the city of Stratford — a unique Victorian city of about 32,000 people in Mid-western Ontario.
Stratford has a retail development in the east end of the city on a major east-west highway, comprising a Zeller’s (a Canadian version of Target), Sears, Canadian Tire, Winners and a number of other smaller retailers, located in two shopping centers across the road from each other. There is a 36 acre site behind the one shopping centre that is zoned industrial that was purchased by First Pro, the developer for Wal-Mart.
There are two existing Wal-Marts and a scheduled superstore within 25 miles of Stratford. On the advice of its consultants, the City had prepared Official Plan Amendment (OPA) 10, which would reinforce the present zoning and legislate the consultants’ recommendations of requiring future retail development to locate in the west end of the city. But Wal-Mart ignored the official plan, and wanted to build on the east end of the city.
Under a thinly veiled threat of taking the city to the Ontario Municipal Board, FirstPro managed to get a deferral on passing OPA 10. That was in February 2004.
On June 28, 2005, Sprawl-Busters reported that a Canadian citizens group in Stratford was reaching out for help to stop this proposed Wal-Mart project.
The group Stratford First wrote: “We are writing to solicit your support in our campaign against Wal-Mart and its developer First Pro. First Pro acquired a 64-acre parcel of land in the east end of this city. The parcel has been zoned industrial for many years. The city commissioned a study by Robin Dee & Associates which concluded that the arrival of another big box store would seriously harm the other retailers in Stratford. It further concluded that if we could not stop the arrival of a big box store, we should insist that it locate in a vacant industrial site downtown or at a site in the west end of the city.”
On October 19, 2007, we reported that the 112,000 s.f. Wal-Mart project came before local officials for a vote. More than 100 anti-Wal-Mart protestors were there, wearing t-shirts that read, “Roll Back Wal-Mart.” The city’s planning and heritage committee voted 7-4 to keep Official Plan Amendment 10 as is.
Stratford’s Mayor Dan Mathieson, who had been careful not to reveal his position on the subject, ultimately was the 7th vote against the project. “I waited it out,” he told the media, “and looked at the expert reports and made sure every piece of information available was taken into consideration. Everyone had the opportunity over three years to review expert information, to attend public meetings and to hear all sides,” he said. “People thought we were slow, but at the end of today, at the last public meeting, we were able to make the best decision that affects the future vision of the city.”
When the Council voted to deny First Pro’s application, the developer appealed the matter to the Ontario Municipal Board. Stratford First, produced more than 3,000 signed cards opposed to this development. The City Centre group, representing downtown retailers, was also strongly opposed. There were two more consultants’ reports tabled since then that bluntly describe First Pro’s reports as “misleading”.
The Stratford Council scheduled a meeting for November 26, 2008 to reconsider the whole issue. Steve Landers from Stratford First, filed a report with Sprawl-Busters on the following day: “We had another council meeting in Stratford last night. Council voted 7-4 in favor of retaining the existing zoning under Official Plan Amendment 10. This rejects the Wal-Mart application for a change in zoning on property in the East End, so the whole matter will now go to the Ontario Municipal Board in January, 2009.”
During the Council hearings, FirstPro said it was dedicated to Stratford, and that it would be spending $40 million on construction, and that Wal-Mart would hire 400 people and pay property taxes of $1.5 million.
The OMB case was expected to last 35 days, with a decision by March of 2009. All along the city held firm its desire to reject a big box store on the east end, preferring that the store be on the city’s expanding west end. But Wal-Mart still wanted the east.
On January 5, 2010, the Beacon Herald newspaper reported that the city made its final argument before the OMB in the Wal-Mart appeal of OPA 10. The city’s lawyer said that the city began the process of reviewing its commercial structure and planning policy in 1999 when it became clear that there was a need to respond to changing commercial circumstances. The lawyer told the OMB that the Wal-Mart project on the east side of the city sought to impose a commercial structure on the city that the city council does not support.
The OMB hearing, the city’s lawyer said, was not about preventing Wal-Mart from coming to Stratford, and was not an arbitrary political decision, or unfair to the developer. The city council made a decision based on the advice of expert consultants. OPA 10 was passed not in response to a particular project, but to the “commercial evolution” that was changing Stratford. The city maintains that the project is also incompatible with the city’s Official Plan, which dates back to 1993.
After five months of nail-biting while the OMB considered its decision, community activists this week walked away with an impressive victory. The Ontario Municipal Board concluded that a Wal-Mart on the east side of Stratford would be “neither in the public interest nor represent good planning.”
The OMB decision affirms the City’s Official Plan, which supports more commercial development in the west end — but not the retail-saturated east end. The OMB agreed with the city’s position that an east side Wal-Mart would undermine development in the city’s west-end retail area.
The OMB rejected the plans of the Avonwood shopping center, which filed the OMB appeal, as not conforming with the city’s 1993 planning policies or the evolution of those polices over the years. “After weighing all the facts and the arguments of opposing counsel, I find that the Avonwood do not conform either to the planning policies set out in the 1993 Official Plan or with the progression or evolution of these policies in OPA 10 and that these policies represent good planning.”
The media reported that this legal victory for the city did not come at an every day low price. Stratford reportedly has incurred $1 million in legal fees — charges the city could have avoided if Wal-Mart had accepted the city’s planning rules.
This time around, Stratford Mayor Dan Mathieson did not hold back his opinion of the OMB decision. “I think it speaks volumes to the many years of hard work and to the sound planning of city staff, our lawyers and our experts through public consultations. And I think it speaks well of Stratford’s future development.” However, Mathieson did not rule out the option that Wal-Mart could now shift its attention to the west side of the city.
Leslie Walker-Fitzpatrick, who was among those who notified Sprawl-Busters of the OMB decision, told the QMI Agency, “I’m absolutely thrilled. I’m so happy. It’s a vote for local democracy; it’s a vote for a community’s right to self-determine its own commercial structure and not have it imposed by a corporation or powers-that-be that don’t understand the needs of the community.”
Although Wal-Mart has suffered a stinging setback in Stratford, the official death of the project is not yet at hand. First Pro and Wal-Mart Canada have 15 days from the decision to appeal the ruling. A Wal-Mart spokesman would not tip the retailer’s hand — but the company will have to argue that a major error was made by the OMB.
This process in Stratford was elongated by Wal-Mart’s six year effort to outlast the locals. Rather than try to build what the community wants — Wal-Mart and its developer continued to push for what they wanted — over the objections of local residents and the City Council.
Most other companies would have negotiated something years ago — but Wal-Mart was running a marathon in Stratford, hoping that the other side would simply get worn out — or run out of cash.
The city argued that Wal-Mart knew what the city’s rules were, and that the developer “simply determined to take its chances, plain and simple, end of story.”
Readers are urged to email the Mayor and Council in the City of Stratford by going to their website: www.city.stratford.on.ca. Send them the following message: “Dear Members of the Stratford City Council, Congratulations on your epic battle to keep industrial land in Stratford zoned for industrial purposes. You stood up against the Wal-Mart project to the end of the OMB process.
The developer has no right to a rezoning of this land. After what this retailer has put you through, and caused you to waste public money to defend your policies, its time to ask Wal-Mart to go darken some other community’s door.
There simply is no market need for an additional Wal-Mart in the Stratford trade area — east side or west side. Wal-Mart brings neither jobs nor revenue to Stratford, and will undermine your efforts to strengthen the downtown.
A good corporate citizen would have moved on by now, but Wal-Mart does not leave unless it is forced to leave. Your city council did not cave into Wal-Mart’s legal pressure, and you put the needs of Stratford residents first.
Wal-Mart has demonstrated that it cares more about its bottom line than the character and land use of Stratford. You are better off without them — on any side of the city.”