Remember the good old days when it was easy to shove a 200,000 s.f. Wal-Mart down a community’s throat? Nowadays, developers have to go through the motions of an impartial zoning hearing process — only to be stymied and delayed by the citizens who actually live in the town. Three Wal-Mart proposals in Snohomish County, Washington have been bogged down by unruly citizens, who clearly don’t buy the notion that wealthy developers should have free-rein in their communities. In Arlington, an appeals hearing is already underway, and in Marysville, citizens intend to appeal a hearing examiner’s decision. And in Mill Creek, citizens have appealed to a hearing examiner also. When citizens file an appeal, the case is referred to a hearing examiners. From there, citizens can also appeal to the local city government, or take their case to court. Either way, the public appeals process means that the timetable for approval can be thrown way off. Going to court alone can stall a project for six months to a year. In that interim, itchy tenants can drop out of projects, or a developer’s financing may fail. A group called North Snohomish Community Matters, a nonprofit coalition of groups, is opposing the new Wal-Mart stores. A Wal-Mart in Stanwood, Washington was defeated, in part, due to citizen appeal. Citizens have nothing to lose but money by going the appeal route. In Marysville, according to the Snohomish Herald, a hearing examiner forced Wal-Mart to restrict truck traffic to the store, and build a noise barrier. Citizens also wanted an environmental impact statement done, but that was not granted on appeal. The case is now going to the county’s Superior Court. In other cases, the appeal route allows citizens to raise objections to traffic studies, stormwater run off studies, or defects in the hearing process itself.
Developers proposing big stores in Washington state can expect big delays. Gone are the days when these projects will slip right through. Residents now realize that Wal-Mart is saturating their communities with superstores every five miles, and neighbors are using the same legal appeal tools that Wal-Mart threatens to use if they don’t get their way. For years, the developers would use the presence of a land use attorney to intimidate local review boards to say Yes when No was more appropriate. All the citizens’ groups have done is pick up the same tool, and used it very effectively.