On December 17, 2008, Sprawl-Busters reported that Wal-Mart had launched an assault on the city of The Dalles, Oregon. The Dalles (pronounced “dayulz”) is located in the north-central part of the state on the scenic Columbia River. It is the Wasco county seat, and the largest community in the County, with a population in 2000 of just over 12,000 people. The Dalles describes itself as one of Oregon’s most historical cities and is known as “the town at the end of the Oregon Trail.” Wal-Mart’s growth trail has led it to The Dalles, and it’s not hard to understand why. The city boasts that it offers “the pleasure of rural living” while being only 80 miles from big city amenities in Portland. The City has a retail area of about 70,000 persons in Washington and Oregon. Its economy has been driven in the past by agriculture, tourism, health care government, and retailing. In early December of 2008, Wal-Mart began the permitting process to construct a 150,000 s.f. superstore. The developer fronting the effort is PACLAND, which has offices in Washington state, Oregon, California and Arizona. Almost everywhere PACLAND goes with its big box projects, controversy follows. Sprawl-Busters has documented PACLAND fights in Red Bluff, California; Cornelius and Gresham, Oregon; Cedar Hills, Utah; and Chelan, Washington. PACLAND is one of the most prolific Wal-Mart developers on the West Coast. The closest Wal-Mart is in Hood River, where Wal-Mart tried to replace its discount store with a supercenter, only to be rejected in a lengthy court battle. In The Dalles, more than 100 people turned out for the Planning Commission hearing last winter. No decision was reached in December. PACLAND also applied to the city to subdivide their 67-acre parcel into five lots. That case began just before Thanksgiving, 2008. City officials said the Wal-Mart proposal is a commercial project in a commercial zone, and that shopping centers are an allowed use in commercial-light industrial zones. PACLAND’s proposal is the largest store in The Dalles. PACLAND’s lawyer said the opposition raised against the superstore “is the same thing we’ve heard all over the state.” The attorney said that not liking Wal-Mart is not a criteria in a land use case. According to The Chronicle, one witness in favor of Wal-Mart paraphrased an attorney in the O. J. Simpson murder trial by saying, “If the zoning fits, you must permit.” But many witnesses spoke against the plan, and said it does not fit — including an environmental group, the Columbia Riverkeepers, which said the Planning Commission did not have enough information on traffic and environmental impacts to make a decision. A citizen’s group, Citizens for Responsible Development (CFRD), has also formed to fight the project, and has hired two attorneys to represent them. Opponents submitted information demonstrating that the Wal-Mart site plan was incompatible with the city’s Comprehensive Plan Economic Development Goals on diversity of the economic base of the community, encouraging the growth of existing employers and attracting new employers to The Dalles. The adverse impacts from this project on other businesses was raised as an issue, charging that Wal-Mart would cause other local businesses to fail, leading to empty storefronts and “urban blight.” Rather than try to address these charges, PACLAND’s attorney said compliance with the comprehensive plan was not a criteria that the planning commission can consider. In other words, the city should ignore all its goals and plans. On January 9, 2009, the city’s Planning Commission approved the creation of a new subdivision for the project. The Citizens for Responsible Development promptly appealed that decision to The Dalles City Council. According to The Chronicle, on February 9, 2009, the citizen’s appeal was unanimously rejected by the city council. The next step in the local process was the public hearing on the project’s site plan, which came before the City Council on February 23, 2009. Attorney Kenneth Helm, representing the citizen’s group, objected to the subdivision because of its potential impact on traffic, wetlands, pollution into Chenowith Creek, and economic impacts on the community. In response, Wal-Mart argued that many of these objections had not been raised earlier at the Planning Commission hearing, and therefore should not be allowed during the appeal to the City Council. Six citizens testified against the project, only one person spoke in favor of the subdivision. After more than three hours of discussion, the City Council ended the hearing, and voted unanimously in support of the Wal-Mart project. The Dalles City Council voted to deny the citizen’s appeal against the city’s Planning Commission approved for the Wal-Mart site plan. The council took more than 5 hours of testimony in front of a packed room with 135 residents. The city’s attorney advised the Council not to allow residents to testify on the economic impacts of Wal-Mart. Residents had been told that economic impacts could only be discussed during the site plan phase of the project. Even the city council was confused. “There isn’t a person at this front table who didn’t anticipate economic issues being part of the appeal on the site plan,” said one City Councilor. “I thought that was a given. But it’s not there. It wasn’t on us to bring it back.” The city’s lawyer said that opponents had failed to list economic impacts in their appeal of the site plan. Residents were allowed to talk about economic issues — but only after the vote had been taken. The Council approved the site plan with some conditions — but none of them major concerns to Wal-Mart. The Council wants Wal-Mart to address traffic issue, to build a fence along the railroad track, to do some bike lane work, build a sidewalk from the highway to the site. The Citizens for Responsible Development were forced to file an appeal of the city’s decision to the state Land Use Board of Appeals (LUBA) in Salem, Oregon. But Wal-Mart was thrilled with the kid glove treatment they received from the city. “We are very pleased and thankful,” a Wal-Mart spokesperson told the Chronicle. “The company is very much looking forward to serving our customers in The Dalles. We heard loud and clear from a lot of residents who support the project. From what we’ve heard, the bulk of the community is very excited about the prospect of having another shopping choice in the community.” This week, roughly eight months since the last Sprawl-Buster’s report, activists in The Dalles have won a battle. The Oregon Land Use Board of Appeals (LUBA) has ordered The Dalles City Council to reconsider Wal-Mart’s proposal to build a SuperCenter at the Chenoweth Interchange, specifically urging further analysis of traffic impacts. Wal-Mart estimates the Supercenter would generate an additional 8,755 vehicle trips per day. The citizen’s appeal asked LUBA to reconsider the case on ground that traffic at the Chenoweth Interchange was not properly analyzed, among other concerns — including significant wetlands on the site near Chenoweth Creek and the Columbia River. “Opponents of the project welcome LUBA’s decision as an opportunity to ensure that the traffic and wetland issues are fully considered before allowing the giant retailer to build,” said a spokesman for the CFRD. There will now be a new public hearing before the City Council. CFRD will now be able to submit new evidence. Residents say they found approximately 40 wetlands were left out of Wal-Mart’s site plan application. Their wetland study was done after City Council approved Wal-Mart’s application. The group says they were “outraged” when they learned of the oversight, but the case was already under review by LUBA and new evidence was not allowed at that time. “The City Council needs to consider the unreasonable traffic levels and safety problems that this project creates,” explains John Nelson, a CFRD spokesperson. “There is evidence in the record that will show the traffic flow at Chenoweth Interchange will fail, even with signal light coordination. Even the Oregon Department of Transportation had problems with the project. Their plan, presently before the City Council, specifies a traffic management system upon achieving set levels of development. CRFD says the city signed a deal with Wal-Mart for a traffic plan that leaves out the traffic management system called for by state transportation officials. “Who will pay for the additional traffic management systems called for by ODOT?” the group asks.
In their 2006 Comprehensive Land Use Plan, The Dalles envisions itself as a “regional retail center.” The city has added a Fred Meyer store, a Home Depot, and a Kmart store — none of them as big as the proposed Wal-Mart. The document seeks “to build upon The Dalles existing strength in the retail sector.” But the plan also calls for using under-developed existing commercial land, and converting some vacant industrial land for retail purposes. The plan calls for the use of “mixed residential/commercial areas, or Neighborhood Centers.” One of the major goals of the Plan is to “encourage the growth of existing employers, and attract new employers to The Dalles that compliment the existing business community.” Another key economic development goal in the plan is to “encourage redevelopment and adaptive reuse of commercial space downtown as an alternative to commercial sprawl.” The Dalles is working under a policy of encouraging investment in city’s Central Business District, and encouraging the “start up and growth of small to medium-sized businesses providing family wage jobs, and to “plan for appealing streetscapes that encourage personal interaction.” The city is at odds with itself as it seeks to strengthen its downtown, while also expanding “highway commercial developments” along its western gateway area. Wal-Mart is largely incompatible with many of the land use policies and goals that the city is pursuing. Readers are urged to contact The Dalles Mayor, Nikki Lesich, at: [email protected] with the following message: “Dear Mayor Lesich, Now that the LUBA has tossed the Wal-Mart case back to the City Council, I hope you will use this opportunity to hear what opponents are saying about traffic and wetlands. The Dalles continues to revitalize its central commercial district, to attract environmental tourists, and to find alternatives to commercial sprawl. Yet the proposal submitted by PACLAND for a Wal-Mart nearly three times the size of a football field is just out of scale with the size of your small community. During the 1990s, The Dalles added roughly 1,000 people to its population base, but even adding in the entire population of Wasco County, you still don’t need a store this big. Even though this project is located on commercial land, the Planning Commission and the City Council still have the right to reject a project because of its adverse impact in areas like existing economic activity, traffic and roads, and the environment. You can ask that a project be reduced in size, and in many communities, developers have respected local desires for smaller projects. The project does not fit The Dalles market. It’s a classic example of suburban sprawl, and is largely incompatible with your land use goals. Hood River rejected a Wal-Mart superstore, as have a number of other communities in Oregon. You don’t have to accept a one-size-fits-all mentality. The only thing that stands between PACLAND gobbling up a major piece of The Dalles, is the Citizens for Responsible Development. Madame Mayor, you now have a second chance to get this analysis right, and to grow smart.”