On October 10, 2005, Sprawl-Busters reported that residents in Polson, Montana had organized to prevent Wal-Mart from closing down its existing store, just to build a supercenter three times bigger on a nearby highway. Wal-Mart wants to abandon a 50,000 square foot store and build a 156,000 square foot Super Center. The city already has two 45,000 square foot grocery stores. Wal-Mart needs to have 28 acres rezoned from residential to commercial and to annex the property into the city. Polson is located on the Flathead Indian Reservation in a natural amphitheater at the south end of Flathead Lake. The city describes itself as being a “charming lakeside community” and the trading center for one of Montana’s most fertile farming areas. The city’s population is close to 5,000, and its per capita income in 2000 was $13,777, lower than the state’s average of $17,151. Local residents told Sprawl-Busters that the city’s maximum potential draw of shoppers is 15,000 (Lake county only has 28,000 people). The group Lake County First has filed a lawsuit against the city to stop construction of the Wal-Mart supercenter. During a brief hearing two days ago at the Lake County Courthouse, Judge Nels Swandal told attorneys for both Wal-Mart and Lake County First to prepare and submit proposed orders by Sept. 4. According to The Missoulian newspaper, the judge said he will make a decision within 30 days after that, presumably signing one of the orders, or issuing his own. Lake County First is charging that the Polson City Council ignored its own growth policy and master development plan when it approved a zoning change that would allow construction of the super center next to U.S. Highway 93, near the Miracle of America Museum. “Polson is a good place to live, and the things that make it so – the lake, the view, the compact business district, the small-town ambience – should be sustained,” reads the Polson Master Plan, according to the brief filed by Martin S. King of the Missoula law firm Worden Thane. Wal-Mart attorneys responded by saying the city council obeyed all legal requirements, including public notices and hearings, before reaching a decision, and noted the council rejected Wal-Mart’s original request for a zoning change – and did not approve a new one until the company presented more details about their plan for the proposed project. “Having once rejected a similar application, and having insisted on thorough scientific and professional analyses, it is apparent the council’s action was based on a solid record,” the Wal-Mart brief says. “The court ought not substitute its judgment for that of the council.” But the land Wal-Mart wants is now zoned low-density residential, and the change to highway commercial is about as jolting a change as one can imagine, and is not compatible with the “charming lakeside” ambiance of the city. The superstore that would be built on Highway 93 is three times the size of the exsisting Wal-Mart on Highway 35, and is being proposed more for the convenience of Wal-Mart’s market share, than for the city of Polson’s shopping needs. “It simply makes little sense and thwarts the entire purpose of planning and mandated growth policies when the very persons who are to interpret and administer the policies have little or no regard for the very policy statements put in place to guide the direction of a community in the long term,” Lake County First says in its lawsuit. The group says the rezoning is an illegal “spot zoning” which will only benefit one landowner — Wal-Mart. The City-County Planning Board recommended the council reject the zone change. The change, the board said, “was contrary to the Polson Development Code and other applicable planning documents which consistently and uniformly provide that this location is best zoned as low-density residential for numerous reasons, including the desire to avoid strip development, to protect the world-class views, to protect and preserve the central business district and other factors. The public comment before the council was almost uniformly likewise.”
This is a classic case of suburban sprawl vs. a compact business district. The Wal-Mart proposal clearly flies in the face of the written planning documents in Polson. What often happens is that when a city is approached by a developer with money in his pocket, local officials respond in a knee-jerk reaction, abandoning all the nice-sounding rhetoric about small town ambiance, and give the developer what he wants. This proposal is the wrong size, and the wrong location. Wal-Mart’s standard argument that the court should not “substitute its judgement” for that of the local council, would be fine if the local council had not substituted its judgement for that of the written Master Plan. If this project is permitted, Polson will have a larger Wal-Mart, and a dead Wal-Mart. Not much else will change. The only thing being added by the proposal is another grocery store — and Polson is likely to see one or more of its existing grocery stores close. The economics of this project don’t pencil out for the city — either in terms of tax revenues or jobs. There will be little or no change in either. Residents will soon get to present their legal case, and they have at least put Wal-Mart’s unneeded project on hold for now. Because of citizen intervention, this small city in Montana has kept Wal-Mart from building for almost two years now.